Alexis Hervais-Adelman, PhD is a member of research staff at the Neurobiology of Language group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen.
He began his academic career at the University of Cambridge, where he obtained his doctoral degree in cognitive neuroscience in 2008, for his thesis entitled “The perceptual learning of degraded speech”.
Subsequently he worked at the Centre for the Neural Basis of Hearing, Cambridge University Department of Physiology, investigating the representation of speech sounds in human auditory cortex. In 2009 he moved to the University of Geneva where he held positions in the Fundamental Neuroscience Department and the Department of Interpreting. There, he worked extensively on the neuroscience of simultaneous interpreting in order to reveal the brain networks that allow interpreters to carry out their highly challenging multilingual work and has examined the consequences of expertise in simultaneous interpretation for the brain.
The Neuroscience of Simultaneous Interpreting
The task of simultaneous interpretation is one of the most complex and demanding linguistic challenges that exist. Interpreters are required to appropriately manage and deploy their cognitive resources in order to be able to monitor an incoming speech stream, buffer it, extract the units of meaning, convert them into a form appropriate for expression in the target language, and monitor their own output simultaneously – all of this in real time. Our research has focused on gathering data that can help to illuminate the relationships between interpreting and other cognitive tasks by looking at the patterns of brain activity that underlie simultaneous interpretation. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging, (fMRI) which enables us to see relative levels of brain activation during task performance. We discovered that simultaneous interpretation recruits a broad swathe of brain areas; in addition to cortical structures that are well-known to be involved in speech perception, comprehension and production, we also found activity in the subcortical structures called the basal ganglia. These nuclei are essential to our ability to interact with the world in an adaptive manner – they hold the key to our ability to select, plan, learn and execute actions.
Simultaneous interpretation is, quite rightly, described as a highly complex cognitive task, and research emphasis has mostly been on the higher-level, not to say “intellectual” aspects of the task, such as linguistic skill, general knowledge and the ability to anticipate the content of the incoming message. However, successful interpretation requires an extreme degree of control over lexico-semantic systems in order to juggle comprehension and message extraction in the source language alongside reformulation into a syntactically valid and semantically appropriate form in the target language. Our results demonstrate that the language management and control elements of interpretation are handled by a system that is not specialized, but rather is responsible for the cognitive control of behavior in the most general terms. These insights have allowed us to contribute to theories of the control of language in the multilingual brain, and to begin to explain some of the cognitive advantages that professional interpreters seem to develop with training.