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Celebrate Chinese New Year with Meng, Mandarin coach at VivaLing

What is your best Chinese New year memory? 

The best moment I’ve ever had is playing with fire crackers in the yard with my friends when I was young (maybe 7 or 8 years old?) The crackers are so beautiful and I loved to share and exchange special crackers with my friends.

 chinese new year vivaling

 How do you usually celebrate Chinese New Year at your place?

My home town is Changde city in the Hunan province. For Chinese people, eating together is the most important partof CNY festival. But before we start eating, my family will put some dishes on the table, recall the members of the family who passed away, and tell them it is time to eat good food. Nobody can touch the food before we carry out this small ceremony. My family will also cook a golden fish, but it is not for eating. This fish means that every year we will have some food and money left for the next year. It is also called “年年有余” (Nian nian you yu).

 What is your favourite Chinese New Year dish? 

My favourite dish is 八宝饭 (ba bao fan). It means Eight Precious Pudding.

learn chinese with VivaLing

Which expression will you teach your students for Chinese New year? 

I will teach them to say 恭喜 发财, 红包 拿来 (gong xi fa cai, hong bao na lai)! why means “trick or treat”! :)

Chinese New Year

Celebrate Chinese New Year with Sukun, Mandarin coach at VivaLing

mandarin coach VivaLing

What is your best CNY memory? 

I remember when I was a child, it always used to snow during CNY. It was white everywhere. My old house has a yard. We used to hang red lanterns under the roof. It was so beautiful, especially when the lanterns were covered with a thick layer of snow. The red lanterns and white snow just matched with each other so well! I will always keep this scene in my mind!

How do you usually celebrate CNY at your place?

I live in the Hebei province. In my hometown, our family always meet on the New Year’s Eve and we usually have a big meal! During the meal, 饺子 (dumplings) are essential! Our whole family will make dumplings together. As an old tradition, we’ll put coins, dates, or other sweet desserts inside some of  the dumplings – it’s said whoever gets the special dumplings will have good luck in the next year. Besides, the whole family will be staying up until midnight. When the clock points to twelve o’clock, we go out and set fireworks to celebrate New Year. The next day, we will all wear new clothes and shoes and visit our relatives and neighbors for new year greetings.

What are your favorite CNY Eve dishes?

We have 门丁 (sweet buns) which are meat buns with red dots on the middle, as well as huge 馒头 (steamed buns) with a character 福 (good luck). My favorite dish is pork joint because it’s good for skin

mandarin coach VivaLing

What is the sentence in Chinese you will teach your VivaLing students for Chinese New Year?

I want to teach my Vivaling students 过年好 (guo nian hao) for the CNY greetings.

 

 

 

 

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Why bilingualism is good for your brain

Today, more than half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. There are obvious advantages to being bilingual, such as the ability to communicate with people from all over the world- for business or simply pleasure. But above and beyond the social benefit, scientific research has revealed the beneficial impact bilingualism has on the brain. VivaLing offers you an inventory of the latest scientific discoveries.

 

1- Bilingual children are more attentive and concentrated

 

Bilingual children are able to focus on a specific goal and inhibit disruptive elements. This was demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Diane Poulin-Dubois (Concordia University in Montreal) in 2010. The difference between bilingual children and monolingual children is that the frontal lobe, the part of the brain which is used for complex cognitive processes such as planning or deductive reasoning, is more active in bilingual brains.

 

2- Bilingualism helps develop adaptability

 

In 1999, Ellen Bialystok (York University in Toronto) demonstrated that bilingualism promotes  adaptability in early childhood. In her experiment, the researcher formed two groups of children: monolinguals and bilinguals, aged up to  5 years old. Each child had to classify cards with red or blue, circles or squares, firstly by shape and subsequently by color. The outcome was that the bilingual children performed better than the monolingual children. The latter, disturbed by the change of instructions (moving the classification from form to color), were less able to adapt.

 

3- Bilingualism can delay the onset of mental illness

In 2010, researchers from the York University in Toronto studied 211 patients with dementia.  They specifically analyzed the history of the disease (the age from which it occurred, the different stages of aggravation, etc.) and the level of the patients’ education (including the mastery of two or more languages). Data analysis showed that in multilingual patients the disease occurred 4.3 years later than in monolingual patients. Another study published in the Neurology  journal in 2013 confirmed these results. On average bilingualism delays the onset of diseases like Parkinson or Alzheimer, for 4-5 years. Intense cerebral activity maintains “cerebral play” thus delaying neurological degeneration.

 

4- Bilingual children are more creative

In a 2010 study in Israel, bilingual and monolingual children, aged between 4 and 5,  were asked to draw either a house or a fantasy flower. Examination of the drawings showed that the bilingual children were more imaginative, more creative, and had a better mastery of abstract concepts.

5- Bilingualism improves planning and problem-solving skills

In 2015, Spanish researchers highlighted the fact that people with two languages ​​perform complex, cognitive tasks, executive control functions such as planning and reasoning, more quickly and efficiently. In general, neuropsychologists agree that bilingualism increases the performance of the cognitive system’s executive functions, all processes involving attention, selection, inhibition, change, etc. Bilingualism creates new connections within the brain. With a more advanced development capacity, bilingual children have the ability to understand and move more easily from one subject to another. Hence the importance of developing bilingualism from an early age in order to acquire facilities in other fields later on.

Man vs Robot - VivaLing

Teaching languages to children : Man vs. Robot

At the recent EdTechXAsia 2016 event, an eminent speaker confirmed what all have been witnessing: contrary to initial fears, technology has not replaced teachers. But, he warned, “teachers proficient with technology will very soon replace those who are not.” The speaker knew what he was talking about : he was none other than  Dr. Janil Puthucheary, Minister of State at the Ministry of Education of Singapore, the country that topped all global PISA rankings in 2016.

The digital leap and the rise of the (good) teacher are two of three current mega trends that we previously explored while reflecting on the future of language learning.  These two phenomena are intertwined. With the coexistence of Man and Robot, there will be dramatic adjustments and power shifts. There will be winners and losers. At this stage you may be wondering what to do to remain off the endangered species list.

We very much agree with Dr Puthucheary’’s view that teachers’ inherent value is increased by their ability to leverage technology. As a facilitator in an enhanced learning environment, the tech-enabled teacher offers more and better learning choices to her students. But this is only the beginning of the story. The rest of the story is that many teaching tasks are now performed better by machines than they are by humans. “Better” can be understood as more consistently, more accurately, more effortlessly, more teaching-effectively or more cost-effectively. Is there any need left for humans when it comes to enunciating a grammar rule, teaching vocabulary, drilling, correcting pronunciation, consolidating knowledge? There isn’t. As a matter of fact, when a teaching task can be fully and unambiguously described as “specialized, routine, predictable” (as Martin Ford, the author of The Rise of the Robots, put it in 2015), chances are machines have already taken over.
The saving grace for teachers is that several of the language learning drivers (as introduced in VivaLing’s ViLLA © ) remain much better activated nowadays by Man than they are by Robot. Let us go over these language learning drivers, from the least to the most favourable of Man over Robot.

 

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  1. Consolidation. In addition to the natural occurrence during sleeping phases, knowledge consolidation happens when memory is retrieved at the right time and in the right manner.  Robots are already more effective at implementing well-known spaced repetition algorithms. They are also improving at memory retrieval techniques which diversify the ways a given piece of knowledge is tested, activated or reinforced.
  2. Language quantity. Computers are already tireless when it comes to offering unlimited language input to learners. Their ability to bring about learner output i.e. language production, however, is more difficult to control. As to providing feedback, today it can only happen in very structured environments such as Multiple Choice Questions or True / False questions, but not in natural language.
  3. Attention. Is the learner’s attention wandering randomly? A teacher can help them focus on the right elements. Machines can too, when highlighting specific elements to focus on. But the risk remains that the learner’s attention will just drift away, in the absence of a “big brother” watching and with the computer environment sometimes even adding to the distraction.
  4. Motivation. Machines have already made significant progress to satisfy extrinsic motivation by providing badges and rewards. But humans still have a significant edge by the timely and adapted encouragement they can provide with the right choice of words and body language. They can also outperform machines in personalization (content and pace), which greatly enhances learner motivation. However truly adaptive learning is high on robot makers’ roadmap and catching up fast.
  5. Social interaction. This is where the ultimate human advantage lies. Social interaction is an absolute requirement for younger children, and strongly recommended for true communicative language learning at all ages. As long as robots cannot fool children, human teachers will remain more effective at teaching. A few weeks ago, a famous US language app at the leading edge of technological disruption launched its chat bots. But after trying them out, we were surprised to note that these bots chat only in writing and in a rigidly structured context, make unexpected grammar mistakes and even used … suspiciously flirtatious vocabulary. They are still very far from matching authentic human interaction.

When adding a historical perspective to all the language-learning drivers, it becomes apparent that Robots are increasingly encroaching on what used to be Man’s exclusive teaching territory. For some drivers, such as consolidation or language quantity, the Robot has already made huge inroads and will soon undeniably and irreversibly overtake Man. Regarding other drivers, such as social interaction, Robots are further or even much further off. But let us keep in mind that Google’s AlphaGo beat the world’s best Go player in the world decades before it was anticipated. Artificial intelligence is making steady progress and it will most likely take no more than a generation or two for a bot to fool a child language learner.

 

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It is even more important today for teachers to master the technology that is available, and to elevate their teaching skills to specific domains and levels still protected from the rise of the Robot. If a teacher is simply requested to deliver a pre-scripted lesson without being able to deviate from it, let there be no mistake: the teacher will be replaced by a Robot before they know it. But if they nurture the pedagogical expertise and social skills to truly offer a superior language learning experience to the learner, they will thrive.

Teachers are not naturally equipped with these skills, and are not sufficiently prepared to embrace their human advantages in traditional teacher training programs. This is why programs such as VivaLing’s VOLT-YL  for teaching languages to children online are progressively preparing them adjust to the fast-changing teaching paradigms.

 

Christmas memories

Christmas memories from around the world

Christmas all over the world is celebrated on Christmas Day, the 25th of December. Some countries however have different Christmas traditions and Christmas celebrations take place over a longer period of time. Discover how the VivaLing coaches live Christmas around the world.

 

Christmas in South Africa with Coach Angela

 

Christmas memories VivaLing

 

What is your best Christmas memory?

My great big family (about 40 of us) getting together to make a special dish and then playing games with presents. Each person had to bring a fun gift wrapped in newspaper. We could exchange our gift if we wanted to. With 40 people the game lasted quite a while and there was a lot of laughter.

 

What do you like best about Christmas?

Preparing and eating dessert. My sisters and I try to outdo each other each year, whether we are buying or making the dessert. Last year, I contributed rich chocolate mousse cake in the shape of Christmas crackers. It was delicious and really sought after. My sisters and I are close and love cooking, so the competition is healthy and  fun.

 

Christmas memories VivaLing

 

What do you usually eat on this occasion?

It’s high summer in South Africa yet we still insist on food that has been influenced by British traditions so we often eat roast meats, roast vegetables and rich desserts such as trifle and Christmas pudding. However, we also add a South African flair to it by having a braai (babarque) grilling meat and eating salads with them.

 

Christmas in Scotland with Coach Hannah

 

What is your best Christmas memory?

Normally in Scotland, we get lots of rain. Sometimes it snows but a lot of the time it lands on rain and melts away. My best Christmas memory was when we had about 15cm snow! :)

 

Christmas memories VivaLing

 

What do you like best about Christmas?

I love the build up to Christmas. There’s lots to do but I love the excitement, especially for children :)

What do you usually eat for this occasion?

In Scotland, we normally eat turkey with potatoes and vegetables, followed by Christmas pudding. Christmas pudding is very rich and full of dried fruit. We normally eat it with cream or brandy butter :)

 

Christmas memories VivaLing

Christmas in France with Coach Laetitia

 

What is your best Christmas memory?

I’m the oldest of four children. We used to get very excited about the presents.  We woke up really early in the morning to open them all. One year, we went a step too far and woke our parents up at 4 in the morning!  After that episode, our parents told us to wait until 7 am to wake them up. But we still woke up really early and the 4 of us would just sit on the couch in the living room watching the presents with only the Christmas tree fairy lights turned on..  This endless wait in the semi-darkness, with  my brother and sisters, is my best Christmas memory.

 

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What do you like best about Christmas?

I lived abroad for a few years and still live far away from my family, so to be with my family for Christmas is what I like the most.

 

What do you usually eat on this occasion?

We normally eat some of the following meals: foie gras with onion jam and gingerbread, smoked salmon, homemade tarama, snails, a turkey or a platter of seafood (my family lives close to the sea and my brother-in-law is a fisherman!) And of course a “bûche de Noël”. However, this year, for a change, we will have the “13 desserts provençaux”.

 

Christmas memories VivaLing

Christmas in China with Jing

 

As a Chinese, Christmas for me was just a great holiday for shopping: all the big malls have great discounts during that period. Until I moved to Europe, I didn’t know the real meaning of it, I hadn’t felt the festive vibe.

In Europe, Christmas is really a family festival just like the spring festival in China, regardless of religion, this holiday is for everyone.

Now that I live in the Netherlands, I play “secret Santa” with my family and friends.  We exchange gifts, and most importantly, we get together and have a big Christmas dinner.

Christmas memories

Another thing I really love about Christmas is decorating the Christmas tree. I never expect that it could be so much fun to make your own Christmas tree. I feel like I am a little girl again. I usually go to the Christmas market to buy a lot of beautiful ornaments for my tree, then I set it up and turn the lights on. I feel as proud as when I make my own “Chinese new year dinner”.

what language should my child learn

What language should my child learn?

The child is not a vessel that is filled, but a fire that is lit”. Montaigne

 

“What language should my child learn?” This is the recurring question for parents, when choosing the first or second foreign language for their child. The question is complex and the answer is difficult to give.  This type of choice depends on various individual and family criteria. Nevertheless, the following criteria will help you to make a wise choice.

1- Motivation and Success

The best foreign language to learn is the one your child will learn successfully. And motivation, as in any other subject,  is one of the most important factors when it comes to  successful language learning.

If your child learns a language because he or she knows that he or she will need it in the near  future (to feel comfortable on a foreign vacation or  to communicate in the country that you are moving to) or the distant future (to enter a specific school or to study abroad for a specific job), then his or her motivation to learn will be what is known as “extrinsic motivation”.

But there is another type of motivation that plays a major role in learning a language, and this is known as “intrinsic motivation”. Communicating with a friendly teacher, receiving positive feedback, experiencing joy and pleasure in conversation, and feeling the progress made in a new language are all learning engines.

It is important to note that no amount of books read or movies viewed in the target language can ever replace communication with a genuine, native interlocutor.

2- The importance of each language in the world

Of course, each language has its own substantial field of influence. The choice of a language can therefore be guided by its importance in the world. The top 3 most widely spoken languages ​​in the world are:

1- Mandarin, which is the most widely spoken language in the world today.  It has nearly 860 million native speakers and 450 million people who speak it as a second language.

2- English, which is the first official language of a hundred or more countries. Native English speakers total around 425 million, distributed across every continent. English is also one of the most influential languages because, apart from being an official language, it is also the “first second language” chosen by nearly 750 million people.

3- Spanish, with about 340 million native speakers.  In addition to Spain, Spanish is spoken in nearly 31 countries, most of which are in Latin America.

 

what language should my child learn

3- The difficulty of each language and its benefits

Some languages ​​are more difficult than others to master. For example, an English speaker will need an average of 2,200 hours, or 88 weeks of lessons to speak something of Japanese. The Chinese, the Arab and the Korean take about the same amount of time. Conversely, it is estimated that it takes 23 to 24 weeks, or 600 hours, for an English speaker to achieve the same level in Spanish or Italian.

But whatever language you learn, exercise is always excellent for the brain.  Learning Chinese, a non Indo-European language, with radically different language patterns has a very positive impact on a student’s comprehension of language in general, thus indirectly improving his or her  knowledge of other languages. This has been highlighted in a study published in 2016, in the journal Nature: the more languages ​​we learn and the younger we learn them, the better equipped we are to learn new languages.

So there’s no time to lose!  Let your kids start learning a new language today. They will be eternally grateful to you.

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Why is game-based learning so effective?

A Chinese proverb says, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.”

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The concept of game-based learning is not new. Plato asserted the importance of the role of play in children’s education, in his work, The Laws. In the fifteenth century, people were already teaching the alphabet and mathematics to children in attractive ways, using card games or counting biscuits. The use of games as a learning tool is a pivotal theme for child psychologists. In the early thirties Piaget formulated a serious of developmental stages in children’s play, which highlighted the importance of play in relation to children’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.

Today, all experts in the field of child development agree on the usefulness and effectiveness of learning through play. When children play, they discover, create, improvise and learn. According to Lev Vygotsky, games are the main source of children’s physical, social and cognitive development. Psychologist David Elkind, also asserts that games, while being source of creativity, are essentially a fundamental mode of learning.

Professionals everywhere, recognize that play and school work are not two separate categories; for children, creation, action and learning are inextricably linked.

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Motivation, social skills and knowledge structuring

According to Dr. Fraser Mustard, playing games increases intelligence, stimulates imagination, encourages creative problem solving and helps to develop confidence, self-esteem and a positive attitude to learning.

The virtues of educational games are indeed numerous: children develop the ability to relate to others, to negotiate, discuss, collaborate and share emotions and ideas. They bond and develop friendships, learn to work in teams and enjoy competing with one another. Competition between players enhances learners’ motivation.

Games also promote the structuring of knowledge; they allow the learner to build and organize patterns or representations in order to understand a concept or a situation. Thus, games improve and reinforce learning.

Games and language learning

How do games contribute to language learning?

Language experts recognize several advantages to using games in language courses:
• They help to break up the monotony of a course.
• They are motivating and challenging.
• They help to maintain effort.
• They offer the opportunity to practice oral and written skills, in the form of comprehension and expression.
• They encourage learners to interact and communicate.
• They create an interesting, authentic context for language use.

For games to be effective, teachers must take into account the number of learners, the level of language proficiency, the duration and theme of the lesson as well as the learners’ cultural background. Above all, teachers must adapt and tailor games to the specific learning situation.

At VivaLing, all of our coaches are trained to exploit the spectrum of digital resources available, in order to make the learning of English, Chinese, Spanish and French playful and interactive, and as a result, highly effective.

So what are you waiting for? Register your child at VivaLing now!

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6 Essential Back-to-School Tips

6 Essential Back-to-School Tips

That’s it- holiday time is over and the carefree days of summer have come to an end. For many, September is synonymous with stress and apprehension: children have to make new friends and meet new teachers while parents struggle to coordinate new routines, to manage a myriad of activities within the limitations of a timetable. VivaLing would like to help you to approach this time of the year with confidence and serenity, by offering you 6 tips.

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  •  Get everyone to bed on time.

During the summer, your child’s bedtimes are understandably variable. However, proper rest is essential for a healthy and productive school year. Help your kids get back on track sleep-wise, by having them go to bed earlier and wake up earlier at least a week in advance of the new school year.

  •  Get to know new teachers. 

There will be open days, orientation meetings, and other meet-and-greet options at the beginning of the school year, but none of these will give you the chance to spend some quality time getting to know your kids’ teachers. Try to find a few minutes before or after school to connect one-on-one with the teachers or at the very least, send an introductory email outlining how you can help during the year, in however big or small a capacity.

  •   Make homework a special moment.

 Within your child’s schedule, plan a daily slot for their homework. Set aside a quiet and comfortable place in the house where he can work, (a bedroom, a study etc.) and equip it with all the necessary study supplies: pen refills, paper, notebooks.  A special time and a special place for homework will help to ensure that your child remains motivated and works well throughout the year.

  •  Plan a daily reading time.

Reading is a key factor in academic success: it enriches your child’s spoken and written vocabulary. It develops your child’s imagination, stimulating creativity and enhancing his inner world. It is also a unique moment that allows you to explore possibilities and go on new adventures together. Try to spend 20 minutes reading with your child every day.  He will savour the pleasure of this intimacy even into adulthood.

  •  Encourage and motivate.

The beginning of every school year poses a new challenge for your child. Whatever the past results have been, let your child know that you support and believe in him throughout the months to come. Encourage your child to do his best, play down failures and remind him that he can always count on you for help.

  •  Choose the right activities.

Each child has different tastes and abilities. Take the time, early on, to sit down with your child and understand his needs and requests. Work out what can reasonably be fit into his schedule. Learning a new foreign language is one activity that will provide your child a tremendous asset in the future, both personally and professionally. VivaLing offers you the possibility of giving this wonderful gift to your child. Totally customized, interactive lessons with a qualified and experienced tutor provide the optimum conditions for a new language to flourish and your child doesn’t even have to leave the comfort of his home!

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The future of language learning

Three mega trends are currently shaping the future of second language learning.

 

  • The digital leap

 

The advent of digitalization came with a three-fold promise from the very onset: increased reach, decreased cost, and enhanced learning outcomes. The first two were pretty obvious. By going online, learning content could reach anyone with an internet connection and would be accessible at a fraction of the cost of traditional education. MOOCs (massive open online classes) were born – although the great initial expectations would later give way to some disappointment.

But even greater was the revolution leading to enhanced learning outcomes. Its basic principle laid in personalization: teaching to the learner’s individual needs. Long gone was the age when personalization merely amounted to choosing subjects and electives or to self-pacing one’s progression. In its most sophisticated form, powered by a heavy dose of technology and science, personalization came to be known as adaptive learning: when a machine could identify the learner’s strengths and weaknesses along the journey and subtly adjust the learning pace and content accordingly. Elusive at first, it is slowly rising to stardom due to its elegance and considerable impact on learning effectiveness.

 

  • The comeback of (great) teachers

Amidst the initial craze for education technology, many were quick to herald no less than the end of teachers. This notice of termination was at best very, very premature – and most likely completely erroneous. Within a few years, emerging from the hangover, technology resumed its role as a very valuable supplement to teachers, rather than a replacement of them. Teachers are indispensable in their ability to guide and motivate their students. In the case of language learning for young learners, research has shown that social interaction is a prerequisite to learning.

Teachers will remain central in providing social interaction until bots powered by artificial intelligence can deceive language learners in this new avatar of the Turing test. This leaves teachers, say, at least one generation. However, emerging tools are already replacing teachers for increasingly sophisticated tasks. To stay on top, teachers need to embrace a continuously evolving role, reinforcing their strengths in “humanness” to establish a strong rapport with their learners, mastering new technologies and tools, upgrading to higher value-adding tasks, and seizing new opportunities at their disposal. In a word, teachers will need to reposition. Less skilled teachers will disappear and great teachers will thrive. Interestingly, very little is done to guide teachers through this transition, whereas they should be cherished by their employers for the determining role they play in education and the irreplaceable value they bring to the table.

 

  • The rise of outsourcing

Ask any school principal and they will tell you at length how difficult it is to recruit competent language teachers, especially outside of large, sought-after urban centers. Once recruited, it is equally difficult to keep their skills current and equip them with the right tools. To top it all off, after proper training comes the biggest challenge of all retaining them. This should not come as a surprise. Teaching languages to young learners requires scale, expertise and resources that are easier to attain for a limited number of global-expert providers than for a large number of schools. This is why the outsourcing of language learning has already started amongst the most progressive schools on all continents.  We foresee that it will develop into a massive trend.

Sound unlikely? Look around. Until the late 90’s, all IT departments were entrenched within the walls of companies and it appeared to be the only way.  Yet over a relatively short period of time, it became apparent that many things could be done more effectively and efficiently outside than in-house. This led to massive outsourcing of manpower and services, culminating in large-scale web services.

 

We will be discussing these three topics and their repercussions further in our upcoming posts: the digital leap, the comeback of the great teacher and the unstoppable rise of outsourcing. In the meantime we want to hear your thoughts!

 

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Why children learn better: science is shedding light

The man on the street has noticed it and science has confirmed it: children are more able to learn foreign languages and achieve high proficiency than adults. What are the reasons? All else being equal, neurology and psychology will provide us with the answers.

Neurological explanations address the state of the brain and its ability to carry out a given task at a certain stage of its development. Several hypotheses were explored as early as the 60ies. One dealt with brain maturation: the brain was thought to be like a slate of clay which, once carved with the mother tongue, could neither be erased nor re-written nor complemented by a foreign language. Another explanation, focusing on native language interference, claimed that once the mother tongue had been acquired, the learning mechanism itself was completely dismantled in order to reallocate neural tissues – a scarce resource – to other tasks. It is known today that some of these extreme explanations are wrong and others, incomplete and oversimplifying.

However, other age-related phenomena affecting foreign language learning are now much better known. The first one is the decrease of brain plasticity over time. Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, refers to the changes in neural pathways brought about by environmental or experiential stimuli. Each new learning (be it knowledge or skill) triggers new brain circuitry creation so as to transfer and process the information. Conversely, unused connections are disposed of in order to optimize the brain functioning and performance. At birth, each neuron (and there are about 100 billion of them) has 2500 synapses enabling neural connections. At age 2-3, the number of synapses per neuron increases to … 15000, that is to say twice the average adult number. In fact, by neural pruning, synaptic density progressively decreases from mid-childhood and teenagehood onwards, at a pace specific to each brain area. In addition, myelination (the sheathing of axons) reinforces the effectiveness of existing neural connections but is detrimental to the brain’s flexibility to set up new neural pathways. Specialization of brain areas to specific and precise functions carries on. Neuroplasticity inexorably decreases with brain maturation. Processes like language learning enjoy a privileged window of opportunity after basic sensory functions and before higher cognitive functions.

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Based on brain plasticity, learning goes through successive sensitive periods focused on: senses during early childhood, language and motor functions during childhood, and later higher cognitive functions (maths, critical thinking, etc…) (credit : adapted from Hensch, 2005, Nature Reviews Neuroscience)

 

David Birdsong, one of the current leading researchers on effects of age of acquisition, identifies other sources as well. Firstly, the widespread decline of cognitive capabilities with age is a regular phenomenon that does not spare language learning. Secondly, interference of the native tongue probably increases with age – age being a proxy of usage of this language. Last, according to psycho-linguists, Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device –giving access to Universal Grammar –, or any other language-specific acquisition mechanism, seems to disappear with age.

Socio-psychological reasons are completely different in nature but no less significant. Children do not feel embarrassed by novelty, since everything is new and consequently nothing is really abnormal. New sounds, even when very different from the mother tongue’s, are not frightening. Children utter them convincingly whereas adults might hesitate to stress them as strongly – they are so “weird”! More importantly still, children will not shy away from trying even if not completely sure, from having a go even if they are mistaken and must start again. Besides, other children will not be critical of the mistakes, at least not in the same proportions. As for adults, they might fear that their social status – which comes across so naturally in their mother tongue – could be degraded by an incomplete command of the other language. To make a long story short, social self-awareness sometimes plays against language learning by adults.

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Regardless of the quality of the learning environment – this topic will be addressed at a later stage –, children are more able to learn foreign languages  than adults  because of neurological and socio-psychological reasons. This is why one should make the most of sensitive period of childhood – it is so favourable !