Schoolgirl researching online

7 Tips to Help your Child Learn a New Language

Here are some tips to encourage and support your child in his learning journey. And you’ll see, you can do a lot to help!

Schoolgirl researching online

1- Show interest in your child’s Language learning experiences and encourage him or her to share them with you

2- Encourage your child to learn through meaningful language games

3- Read newspapers and books together, starting with books with attractive illustrations

4- Bring your child to the library or bookshops to cultivate a reading habit

5- Watch quality television programmes in the target language together

6- Make use of objects in your environment such as road signs and advertisements to engage your child in conversations in the target language

7-Build up your child’s confidence by not correcting his or her mistakes excessively

 

* Tips from “The new Chinese language curriculum for primary schools” by Singaporean MOE

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To read Chinese one must start early

In any written language, words are subject to a triple association: sound, spelling and of course meaning. For example, the English word horse refers to the working and racing animal, is pronounced /hɔː(ɹ)s/ and spelled h-o-r-s-e. Anyone knowing how to read will be able to pronounce the word relatively correctly even if they have never seen it in writing before, as English is written in the Latin alphabetical script.

As explained by S. Dehaene, the reading process takes place here through the so-called phonological route: graphemes are mechanically converted into phonemes without resorting to deeper semantic representations.

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The situation is quite different when it comes to Chinese. All Chinese languages are written in the unified system of Chinese characters. These Chinese characters are pronounced differently in each of the languages of the Chinese linguistic branch, for instance in Mandarin, the most widespread. Non-Chinese speakers often claim that the mapping of a Chinese character and its pronunciation is completely arbitrary; therefore it is said to be impossible to pronounce a character, even when knowing its meaning, unless its pronunciation has been learnt by rote beforehand.

The reality is slightly more subtle. Indeed, it is often necessary to learn simultaneously a word’s character and its pronunciation. But it must be stressed that 80% to 90% of Chinese characters are actually compound characters. They often consist of at least two subcomponents: a phonetic root (there are about 200 of them) and a semantic root (there are about 1000 of them). The phonetic root, often on the right side of the compound character, may give clues as to the pronunciation of the character. The semantic root, often on the left, tells about the word’s meaning, or at least the lexical category it belongs to. For instance, the Chinese character for a horse is马in simplified Chinese, and is pronounced  (third tone) in Mandarin.

The word for mother is pronounced mā ma (ma is doubled, the first one is pronounced with the first tone); the compound character for each ma has the semantic root of woman on its left and the phonetic root of horse on its right.

ma ma English

In a paper dated 2007, Bao Guo Chen and colleagues proved that the more arbitrary the mapping between meaning and sound or spelling, the higher the effects of the Age of Acquisition (AoA) on Chinese reading (for native speakers). Characters acquired early would be read with ease; characters acquired at a later stage would be more difficult to read if the correspondence between writing and sound or spelling was difficult to predict.

In other words, the more difficult it is to deduct meaning and spelling by reading a character, the more detrimental late acquisition is to quality and speed of reading.

Thus, within Chinese language and for native speakers, the impact of the Age of Acquisition increases with the arbitrariness of the mapping between meaning, pronunciation and spelling. What is the situation for alphabetical languages? By definition, reading an alphabetical language gives a very valuable clue as to what the pronunciation is going to be*.

Taken as a whole, the Chinese language is significantly more arbitrary than alphabetical languages in terms of mapping from character to sound and meaning. One can therefore assume that for Chinese even more so than for other languages, there is benefit in learning the language early so as not to be negatively impacted by the enhanced effects of the Age of Acquisition on reading.

 

 

 

 

 

To learn more about Chinese learning :
Chen, B. G., Zhou, H. X., Dunlap, S. and Perfetti, C. A. (2007).Age of acquisition effects in reading Chinese: Evidence in favour of the arbitrary mapping hypothesis. British Journal of Psychology, 98: 499–516. doi: 10.1348/000712606X165484

Stanislas Dehaene (2007). Les neurones de la lectureEditions Odile Jacob

 

Note : * The situation varies quite significantly from language to language. Italian or Turkish, for instance, are very easy to pronounce when reading a text, while a given spelling in English can be read in multiple ways (refer for instance to  toughthroughthorough, etc…)

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Your child’s Journey with VivaLing

Start early, learn well, don’t forget : these are the very simple stages of your child’s Journey with VivaLing. Find out more below about the theoretical framework developed by VivaLing and how it is implemented in order to achieve results. You can also read the related posts throughout our VivaLing blog.

 

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3 key drivers of second language acquisition for children

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Take a child at any given stage of development. All else equal, three key drivers will determine the effectiveness of the child’s foreign language acquisition: quantity of language activities, motivation, and social interaction.

What is summarized here as language activities covers in fact several concepts, distinct but complementary, perfectly well introduced by Shumei Zhang (2009) of Dongguan University. These concepts are : input, output and feedback. Input describes the amount of target language that the learner is exposed to and that is processed by their brain. Input is indispensable, but not sufficient by itself. Feedback (sometimes called interaction) is necessary for the learner to grow aware of their mistakes and correct them. Last, output, or language produced by the learner, enables them, amongst others, to test their target language hypotheses and develop automaticity in language production. Our brain being “a supercomputer (…) equipped with powerful and rigorous statistical inference mechanisms”, as Stanislas Dehaene (2013), Professor at the College de France, puts it, input, feedback and output will be all the more effective as they come in large quantity and at the required level of quality.

It is thus necessary to speak abundantly to the child in the target language, if possible regularly, and with the right language level (that is to say without mistakes, in a way that is clear enough to be understood and sophisticated enough for the child to progress). The child must be strongly encouraged to speak in the target language, even if they have to take a leap of faith without any guarantee of success. Finally, one should not refrain from providing feedback to the child in case of mistake: it is not blaming or scolding but genuinely a necessary stage in the learning process.

 

L’input est indispensable à l’apprentissage de langue … mais pas suffisant

Input is indispensable for second language acquisition – but not sufficient by itself

Rebecca Oxford (1994), with the University of Alabama, mentions it: “research shows that motivation directly influences how often students use L2learning strategies, how much students interact with native speakers, how much input they receive in the language being learned (the target language), how well they do on curriculum-related achievement tests, how high their general proficiency level becomes, and how long they persevere and maintain L2 skills after language study is over”. Indeed, motivation is one of the most powerful language learning drivers. Motivation can make up for certain aptitude or quantity deficiencies; conversely, without motivation no learning can take place.

Typically, children will want to learn a language to integrate in their environment and have friends, or to succeed at exams; their motivation will be intrinsic, out of interest for the language or for the sake of achievement, or extrinsic, when driven with more or less success by their environment. Teachers play a pivotal role in their students’ motivation. Motivation also implies lack of demotivating factors. Parents, for instance, should not convey their own concerns towards a language that they think is too difficult; society should not make negative judgements on a language that is deemed inappropriate for one reason or the other.

 

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Motivation, a key driver for language learning, varies in nature and intensity from one individual to the other (credit termcoord.eu)

Social interaction is the third learning driver. There is a partial overlap with the previous two drivers: feedback is often given through a social interaction (and not by a machine), and motivation very often comes from someone’s positive action. But the phenomenon is much farther reaching. At the iLabs center at the University of Washington, Sarah Roseberry (2011) studied the linguistic learning of a group of 42 children aged below 3, in various experimental settings: first with an adult attending in person, then with an adult attending virtually through a Skype-like remote connection, last with an adult in a pre-recorded video.

The outcome is unambiguous: live adults, whether present in person or through an online connection, enable a similar level of learning whereas the pre-recorded video is much less impactful. Therefore, one can strongly question the pedagogical effectiveness, at least for infants and toddlers, of pre-recorded child programs, even when the main character asks a question and pretends to be waiting for the answer. The fact is that children are not fooled. For actual learning they need real social interaction wherein the other person effectively follows their gaze, reacts to their facial expressions and change of attitude, pausing or resuming, in a word to their behavioural and learning dynamics.

 

Les personnages de certains dessins animés populaires ne dupent pas les enfants, même lorsqu’ils posent une question et font semblant d’attendre une réponse

The characters of some popular cartoons do not fool children, even when they ask a question and pretend to be waiting for an answer.

For your child’s second language acquisition, make sure not to disregard any of the powerful learning drivers discussed above: quantity of language activities, motivation and social interaction.

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5 myths about your child learning another language

One day you will probably have to decide whether or not to encourage your child to learn another language. Here are 5 myths you need to dispel first.

  • Myth 1 : Most children are monolingual, so why bother ?

Well, no. More than half of the world population actually grows up speaking more than one language. To start with, quite a few countries are officially multilingual (for example, Singapore), and many others are functionally multilingual. In China, while Mandarin is the lingua franca, hundreds of millions speak other regional languages such as Shanghaiese, Cantonese or Hokkien. In India most people speak one or both of the national languages (English and Hindi), one official regional language (there are 22 of them), and a local or family language. Even in Europe more and more children grow up with several languages, so much so that multilinguals now represent 54% of the population.

  • Myth 2 : Leave the kids alone, they will learn when they grow up.

You wish. Unfortunately it does not work that way. True, adults can progress much quicker at the beginning thanks to their advanced analytical skills and their life-long acquired knowledge. But very soon they hit a wall. And how far that wall is varies greatly from one individual to another. Conversely, children might start slowly, but they – and only they – will eventually overcome pronunciation and proficiency issues. So keep this general rule in mind : age of acquisition is a very good predictor of ultimate nativelikeness. The younger, the better. Childhood is indeed a sensitive period when it comes to languages. Oh and by the way, learning too can be great fun for them.

  • Myth 3 : Multilingual kids are late in their language development.

Wrong. Children growing with two or more languages have by and large no delay in language development. Of course, their vocabulary knowledge in any of the two languages may often be smaller than that of a monolingual child ; but when taken together, the lexicons in both languages are at least of the same size as a monolingual child’s. There are also positive interferences, for instance metalinguistic knowledge acquired through one language and transferred to the other.

  • Myth 4 : Multilingual kids confuse their different languages

No they don’t. In fact, right from birth, infants can discriminate between different languages. What does indeed happen is that children speaking different languages may often mix them in a conversation (as in combine them or use them concurrently) – but it is no confusion. This is called code-switching. Why would they do so ? Usually because the right word comes first to their mind in the other language (and maybe they do not even know it in the first language). This happens only when they are aware that the person they are talking to also understands that language. In conversations with monolinguals or when required not to code-switch, multilingual children will stick to one language.

  • Myth 5 : There are no worthwhile advantages to learning other languages

Really ? Incredibly, someone recently claimed to have calculated the return on investment of language learning by studying people’s salaries, and concluded that one should only learn English, if anything. But there is so much more to multilingualism than a higher salary. Being truly successful at school or at work, grasping the most subtle details. Opening up to other people and cultures, and speaking to their heart rather than to their brain. Reaping non-linguistic cognitive benefits, for instance, a higher ability to process conflicting information. And even, as recently discovered, delaying the onset of old-age related diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Convinced ? Let us know !

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Ava the little Mandarin singer and story teller

Today we are hosted by Olivia and Simon who took some time out between two trips to share some of their multilingual life with us.

 

  • Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Simon, my husband, our two daughters Ava (5 years old) and Zélie (2 years old) and myself have been living in Singapore for the past 18 months. Singapore is our second expat destination after Sydney where we spent two blissful years. We are originally from Paris but before we got kids, Simon, who works for a bank, used to live in London while I was living in Brussels, and before that, in Moscow during my studies.

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  • What are your best personal memories of multilingualism?

I have had the chance since I was 10 to be sent by my parents each year to a different country to finish my school year during at least one month (Germany, UK, US, Italy). Despite the fact that all my French friends were on holidays while I was still at school, thanks to my Kiasu parents (!), I have kept great memories of this time of my life. It helped me develop a sense of adaptability to understand other culture’s perspectives and build friendships with people from different origins.

Now it’s my turn to be a Kiasu mum 😉 so both of my kids are going to the Singaporean pre-school and I would like to send Ava to the local system for primary as well. After 2 years in Australian kindergarten hearing her saying to my neighbor: “Good day mate!” while heading to the beach, I now see her comfortable in speaking mandarin to her Lao shi or singing songs with her friends from school.

I am amazed by the ability and facility that kids of that age can have in learning new languages and adapting to new environments. Beyond the language, I wish for my kids to embrace all the cultural diversity they are exposed to in order to grow up, thinking outside of the box and having a tolerant approach to other cultures, religions and traditions.

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  • What is your children’s linguistic journey ?

Ava was born in France. Her first language is French and she started learning English when she was two after moving to Australia. In Sydney, we used to speak mostly English including at home, so when we left for Singapore, her English was already pretty good.

She then started Mandarin at pre-school at the age of 4. I didn’t realise the first week how many hours of Mandarin she had per day and I remember picking her up from school, asking: “So honey, what did you learn at school today?”. She was mumbling: “I don’t know”. She had given me the same answer every single day since she started pre-school so I started to loose patience and then she said: “The English teacher has been sick all week so we have had the Chinese teacher talking to us all the time” Oops….! Yes, I felt like a bad mother… The week after, the English teacher came back and put a little bit of balance in Ava’s mandarin learning curve. Now she is the first one to ask if she can tell me a story in Mandarin. She asks for Sunny Laoshe’s class every day and when her 25mn Vivaling class is over, she watches the video of her previous class with Sunny Laoshi. I feel relieved, no trauma in Chinese!

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  • Why do you want your kids to learn Chinese ?

To speak the most widely spoken language in the world, I guess!  Mandarin Chinese is a key language to speak with English and Spanish probably. One step at a time… 😉

  • What does VivaLing bring you ?

VivaLing is the perfect tool to help Ava develop her confidence in speaking Chinese. At school, she has very few opportunities to have a discussion in Chinese. She hears the teacher speak, repeats the words, writes them but is invited to speak mostly during the “show and tell sessions” while she has to present to her friends a 3mn story from a book she chooses and translates in Chinese. The gap is quite big for her, as she has no occasion at home to speak in Chinese contrary to many of her friends. Now, thanks to VivaLing and to Sunny, she has someone twice a week to talk to in Chinese, to tell about all this part of her schoollife that I am not always capable to follow. She also plays with Sunny, showing her her dollies, telling her princess stories… She is Ava’s Chinese friend from Beijing! Thank you Sunny! Thank you VivaLing!

Next year, I envisage enrolling Zelie. “Zelie, do you want to learn Chinese as well ? Yào”.

Many thanks to Olivia and Simon for sharing their experience. If you too would like to be featured in this series, do get in touch with us!

 

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For Fanny and Alex, the world is about Exchange

Today we get to meet Fanny and Alex.

 

  • Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

We are a family from the South West of France, expatriated to Singapore since last year. We wanted to discover the world more than just by one-off trips!

Singapore is our first expat experience but Alex and myself (Fanny) have been on the road forever, going solo, or as a couple, then with our two kiddies as soon as they were a few months old. We have roamed over Europe, on the roads of Mexico and India, from Lebanon to Indonesia with stopovers in New-Zealand, Malaysia, Morocco, Japan, North America…

For us, travelling is essential to understand differences (and we experience differences in our daily lives with our younger son’s disabilities), to open up to others and to build today and tomorrow. More importantly, this should take place through the eyes of our kids on the world: they are the future and they must get sensitized from today.

Fanny et Alex, avec Nathanel et Eliaz

Fanny et Alex, avec Nathanel et Eliaz

 

  • What are your best personal memories of multilingualism?

The best memories, for Alex, are work-related : participating in trade shows, speaking in turn French, English, Spanish and Italian, to the point that, at the end of the day, he felt like a native speaker of each language !

We have numerous personal and family memories of all the opportunities granted by foreign languages: discovering more, going beyond barriers, understanding others better during each of our trips.

More recent memories are our requesting our son to teach us the basics of Mandarin – so that we can immerse ourselves better in local Singaporean life – and the smiles of Singaporeans when we talk to them in Mandarin!

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  • What is your children’s linguistic journey ?

Our kids had never studied English before coming to Singapore. In Bordeaux (France), they used to go to a school which had traditionally welcomed many immigrants of Hispanic origin. So they started their linguistic journey with learning Spanish from kindergarten onwards. In parallel, at home, we have spoken sign language for several years until our younger son was able to speak verbally.

Today, Nathanel (9 y.o.) studies English and Mandarin at school and with VivaLing. In spite of his difference, Eliaz (7 y.o.), is getting sensitized to English at school and with VivaLing with immense pleasure; he will very soon start attending a special needs school in Singapore.

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  • What does it mean to you to see your kids learning languages ?

Nathanel had vowed never to learn or speak English or any language other than Spanish ;-)! Today, seeing him chat with Singaporeans, with a big smile on the face, switching between English and Mandarin, is a real treat! For our older son, learning Mandarin is first and foremost a desire, a pleasure and an deep interest in a language that he describes as so subtle and singing. Seeing him thrive with other words and open up to a new way of addressing “others” and communicating, to a different culture, is key in the upbringing that we have chosen for our kids.

As for Eliaz, even at the « other end of the world », with the notion of « different languages”, he can benefit from a schooling system that is suitable to his needs without language being an obstacle. He can thus give free rein to his every day indulgences in meeting others and exchanging.

Foreign languages are a personal and professional asset for them. For us, the world manifests itself through Exchange and language is one of its main channels. The more spoken languages, the less barriers to discovery and meeting people.

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  • What does VivaLing bring you ?

The opportunities given by VivaLing are great from all perspectives!! A customized organization (perfect when your kid’s agenda looks like the Prime Minister’s), the possibility of adjusting to the kid’s rhythm while complying with the parents’, the convenience of sessions at home and even the rates. The interactivity is easy and perfect.

But above all, beyond the language itself, VivaLing enables to cross borders again and put our kids in touch with coaches from all over the world and all walks of life! In addition to language, our kids also learn how it is to live elsewhere. In our case, conversations shared with their coaches take our kids to the Czech Republic and Texas, USA.

Many thanks to Fanny and Alex for sharing their experience. If you too would like to be featured in this series, do get in touch with us!

 

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Erika and Romain’s interpreter was three and a half years old

Today we are hosted by Erika and Romain who just came back to France after many years abroad.

 

  • Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

My husband Romain and myself, Erika, came back last month from Singapore where we lived for nine years as expats. We work with a large construction company. Our two boys were born in Singapore – they are 4 and 2 years old.

 

  • What are your best personal memories of multilingualism?

When we ask Maxence, our elder son, his citizenship, he replies : « Moi, I’m Chinese, et mon (petit frère) Amaury il est French » (“As far as I am concerned, I am Chinese, and my little Amaury, he is French”, in a nice mix of languages). I must say we laughed a lot, but jokes aside it shows a great openness to other cultures and languages. Last May, we travelled to Yunnan, in South China. Needless to say that very few people speak English there. On the second day, we bought a mango on the market. We could not manage to explain to the hotel staff that we needed a plate to cut it. They were rather surprised, to say the least, when a little three and a half year old kid asked them for a plate in Mandarin !

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  • What is your children’s linguistic journey ?

In Singapore our kids went to a local playschool and kindergarten. They would hear and speak Mandarin and English every day. We would speak only French to them to avoid confusion (and because our accent in English has room for improvement). Maxence had reached a point where his Mandarin and English were getting quite good, and it seemed to us a real shame to drop everything just because we were going back to France. He started Mandarin sessions with VivaLing in June, one month before we came back, to ease the transition. I must admit that we were not very confident as to the next steps, because at the beginning he completely refused to speak. However I could feel that he understood everything. After a few weeks, he uttered a “ni hau” (hello in Mandarin). Persistence paid off: now he interacts with his coach Sunny and speaks with her with an impeccable accent. He repeats, and plays while speaking in Mandarin in front of the ipad.

Amaury is still a bit young to stay 15 minutes seated in front of the ipad and take part in a language coaching session, but he will hopefully start a bit later.

 

  • Why do you want your kids to learn Chinese ?

My husband and myself are not really gifted as far as languages are concerned. We speak French of course and English. We have forgotten most of the German we learnt at school. Our careers are much more international than our parents’, and the same will go with our own kids. Mandarin is spoken by a huge share of the population: they are very fortunate to be able to learn while having fun, and without any pain. It will be a door-opener in the future.

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  • What does VivaLing bring you ?

I find it extraordinary that a little French boy should be able to interact with a Chinese coach living near Beijing, while himself living first in Singapore and then in France. Ties are built during the sessions which are meant to be fun. So much so that Maxence often tells us that he likes his “Sunny Laoshi” (laoshi means teacher in Mandarin). Coach Sunny adapts the sessions according to Maxence’s mood, by telling him stories based on the toys he shows her, for instance. I enjoy very much the flexibility made possible by VivaLing : as long as we have an internet connection, we can go on with our sessions on ipad, even during the holidays. No need to go anywhere, the sessions are easier to schedule. We enjoy being able to view the recorded sessions over and over again. Once we have settled in with VivaLing in Mandarin, we are thinking of starting English sessions.

 

Many thanks to Erika and Romain for sharing their experience. If you too would like to be featured in this series, do get in touch with us!

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Perceiving sound contrasts : before 1 year of age, or never

Babies are born universal listeners. In the first months of their lives, they can discriminate all the sounds produced by human beings. It is no small feat: you and I cannot. A typical Japanese adult is unable to hear the difference between an English /l/ and /r/. A typical English adult cannot detect the nuance between Mandarin /ɕ/ and /t͡ɕ/. The various /k/ and /q/ sounds in native American languages are not discriminated by non-Indian American adults. And Catalan mid-vowel contrasts (/e/, /ɛ/) are difficult to perceive even for adult Castilian-speaking Spaniards.

Babies keep listening. And while listening, their brains take statistics on the languages spoken in their environment. What happens towards the age of 1 is an incredible linguistic transformation. Babies get better at discriminating the sounds of their own language (native contrasts); but they completely and irremediably lose the ability to detect the sound differences present in other languages but irrelevant to theirs (non-native contrasts). The age of this transformation is known as the critical phonetic period. It is the clearest of all language critical periods.

Incredibly, before they reach that period, babies can be trained in other languages. In her memorable 2010 TED Talk, Patricia Kuhl describes how twelve sessions delivered by a Mandarin speaker to American babies had the same effect as ten and a half months of native Mandarin speaking on Taiwanese babies: at the end of the experiment the two groups were equally good at the perception of Mandarin contrasts.

Two more miracles are to be highlighted. First, the baby brain is a social one. If the baby is exposed to other languages’ sound contrasts by a recording, be it a full video or just an audio track, their performance is as bad as if there had been no training at all. But if the baby is trained by a living person, then the capability to perceive contrasts becomes as good as if the baby had been a native speaker. Sarah Roseberry, a  researcher in Patricia Kuhl’s lab, demonstrated in 2011 that the social impact is felt irrespective of the person’s physical presence or not : a Skype-like online, synchronous video interaction will have the same effect.

The second miracle is how adults could figure out whether babies perceive or not the sound contrasts. Babies, obviously, cannot speak, do not understand what the researchers are looking for and could not express consciously the results anyway. In a 2009 video, Derek Houston summarizes three common methodologies historically used to investigate infant speech discrimination skills :

–          High Amplitude Sucking (HAS) : sensors measure the amplitude and speed at which a baby sucks a pacifier. When different sounds are played (and perceived as different) the sucking response changes.

–          Conditional Head Turns (CHT) : the baby is taught to turn their head when they get a specific signal, in this case when they hear a sound contrast. If they do not turn their head it means they cannot hear a sound contrast.

–          Visual Habituation Methods (VHM) : when habituated to a given sound, babies’ looking time at a visual display tends to decrease. A sudden increase means babies have detected a novel sound.

Today scientists increasingly resort  to electrophysiological and neural imaging techniques, as mentioned in Kuhl’s video. This gives us a direct glimpse at what is happening inside the brain, and whether or not sound contrasts are perceived.

 

For more information :

Houston, D. M., Horn, D. L., Qi, R., Ting, J. Y. and Gao, S. (2007) : Assessing Speech Discrimination in Individual Infants. Infancy, 12: 119–145

Kuhl, P. K., Tsao. F.-M., & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100, 9096-9101

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Could your child forget a language ?

Sarah and Jeremie’s parents have told us their family’s language history. With a French father and a South-African, English-speaking mother, the two kids grew up simultaneously bilingual. Born in India, surrounded by nannies strictly instructed to speak nothing but Hindi, the kids quickly gained a very good understanding of the local language. The family moved from India to Singapore when Sarah turned five and Jeremie was three and a half. At first the two kids greeted every Singaporean with an enthusiastic “Namaste” – even those clearly of Chinese or Malay origin. Soon, realizing their communication attempts were unsuccessful, they switched to English which was understood by all. One fine day, 6 months after their arrival in Singapore, an Indian asked them their names in very basic Hindi. To everyone’s surprise, the children remained silent, obviously not understanding the question. The perplexed parents made other attempts in Hindi but soon had to face the facts: their children’s Hindi seemed to have completely vanished.

This case is far from unique. Expat families, for instance, know it all too well and never run short of anecdotes on the matter. Initially so prompt to marvel at the nearly miraculous language acquisition of their kids, they are often taken aback when the second language disappears as quickly as it was learned. In his book Bilingual, Francois Grosjean shares several such stories. Little Stephen, at the age of 8, had already learned three languages and forgotten two. Kai Fong, of Cantonese mother tongue, emigrated to the United States with his parents aged 5; by the age of 10, speaking nothing but English, he was no longer able to communicate with the elder members of the family.

But all these disorientated parents often have a secret hope: isn’t the missing language buried somewhere in the brain and ready to re-emerge given the right conditions?

To formally answer this question and others, in 2003 Christophe Pallier chose to study orphans who had been adopted in their infancy or early childhood by families speaking a different language. The subjects finally selected were Koreans who had been adopted between the ages of 3 and 5 by French speaking families.The children had thus lost contact with their mother tongue – Korean – overnight. Then as adults, they underwent a battery of tests from Pallier and his team. The tests consisted, for instance, of recognizing sentences in Korean among other languages, or of identifying the correct translation of a French word between two Korean words. While doing so, the subjects’ brain activity was monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging. For each of these experiments and observations, the results of these Korean orphans were compared with those of a control group of French subjects. The jury is out: the two groups were almost indistinguishable; the Korean orphans had retained no, or almost no memory of the Korean language. The only difference was that the orphans performed better than the control group at recognizing a series of numbers in Korean.

Nevertheless Christophe Pallier reports the findings of other researchers tending to prove sustainable benefits from early exposure to a second language, even when this language (or the mother tongue as seen earlier) seems to be later “forgotten”. The supposed benefits deal mostly with the fields of perception and production of sounds – but the experimental conditions of this research were slightly different and the exposure to the “forgotten” language had never completely stopped.

In view of the results, the call to action is clear. While childhood and early childhood enable second language acquisition in optimal conditions, the second language, if not maintained, can disappear as quickly as it came. It will be gone or nearly gone forever. One must therefore practice! Finally, other studies cited by Christophe Pallier or compiled on Monika Schmid’s website suggest that if the language is retained until puberty, attrition might then be much lower. This is yet another reason to reinforce one’s second language skills until puberty at least.

Addendum (September 2016) : Further studies have unveiled even more interesting aspects of attrition. As Leher Singh puts it, “you do not always lose what you do not use”. More specifically, while children may lose the ability to discriminate a phonemic contrast that occurs in their birth language after this language is replaced by another one, the reacquisition of the contrast after training will be much faster than for a control population. Other studies have yielded converging results : when attrition of a language occurs, the subject may not retain any conscious memory of this language but their brain’s electrical activity upon stimulation differs from that of the control group without prior exposure to the language. 

 

 

* Note : the names have been changed.

For more information :

Schmid, Monika. The attrition website

Grosjean, F (2010). Bilingual. Harvard University Press

Pallier, C (2007). Critical periods in language acquisition and language attrition.  In Barbara Köpke, Monika S. Schmid, Merel Keijzer, and Susan Dostert, editors,Language Attrition: Theoretical perspectives. John Benjamins, Amsterdam

Leher Singh, Jacqueline Liederman, Robyn Mierzejewski, Jonathan Barnes (2011).  Rapid reacquisition of native phoneme contrasts after disuse: you do not always lose what you do not.  In  Developmental Science , 14:5 (2011), pp 949–959