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Physicist-turned-neuroscientist Nandini Chatterjee Singh doesn’t get annoyed any more when she watches her 13-year-old daughter engage in such chatter in Romanagiri — a term scientists have coined for Hindi or other native Indian languages scripted in Roman alphabets.
Three years ago, whenever she received text messages with Romanagiri words on her mobile phone, she would leave them unread. And she would admonish her son and daughter if she spotted them chatting in Romanagiri.
Not any more.
Singh and her colleagues at the National Brain Research Centre at Manesar in Haryana, have discovered that reading in Romanagiri imposes an extra load on the brain. But that, the scientists think, might not be a bad thing at all.
Their study, based on the first-ever magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of brain activity in persons reading Romanagiri text, has revealed increased cognitive loads in the areas of the human brain involved in language processing.
“In processing Romanagiri, the brain has to work extra hard to suppress one component of each language,” said Singh, an associate professor at the NBRC who leads a research group that is exploring how the brain processes speech and language.
The researchers believe this extra effort results from the conflicting demand imposed on the brain when a person tries to read a script not traditionally linked to a language. “When using Roman alphabets for Hindi, the brain has to suppress the script of Hindi and the semantics of English,” Singh told The Telegraph.
The study, just published in the journal Brain and Language, was aimed at investigating neural activity specifically associated with Romanagiri, a form of transliteration that has burgeoned in recent years with the spread of the Internet and mobile communication devices and quick message exchanges via social networking sites.
Singh said indirect evidence from independent studies in the past suggest that persons who are adept at Romanagiri-like transliteration may also be skilled in processing multiple tasks. But, she cautioned, whether such multi-tasking skills in such persons will also apply to neural tasks beyond language processing is still unclear.
Linguists say Romanagiri is fairly widespread in India, visible for decades on Bollywood film posters, but now increasingly being used by the young and the old to text messages through mobile devices or chat online.
“Romanagiri has already influenced some native words through the introduction of variations of words,” said Pramod Pandey, professor at the Centre for Linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
“We now have Ashok and Ashoka. Before transliteration, there was only one version — Ashok.”
The visibility of Romanagiri has stirred Singh into speculating whether a common alphabet could help some people overcome the barriers that India’s diverse scripts pose to those wishing to learn multiple languages.
“Romanagiri may allow some people to pick up other languages far more easily than they would if they had to learn their associated scripts too,” Singh said.
Language specialists, however, don’t see Romanagiri replacing scripts.
“A language and its script are both strong symbols of identity,” said Vaishna Narang, another professor of linguistics at the JNU. Neither Pandey nor Narang were associated with the NBRC study.
“The evolution of scripts itself reflects the desire of people to assert their unique identities — take the examples of Hindi or Bengali or Gujarati, they’re related but are different.
Post-doctoral researcher Chaitra Rao and graduate scholar Avantika Mathur were co-authors in the study.
The researchers assigned Romanagiri reading tasks to 15 volunteers familiar with both English and Hindi, and observed the speed at which they would finish the tasks free of errors while observing their brain activity through MRI scans.