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.

Photo Ava G - (3) avec Olivia - Small

  • 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.

Photo Ava G - (1) Famille - Small

 

  • 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!

Photo Ava G - (2) avec Zelie - Small

  • 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!

 

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!

DSC_5020

  • 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.

VivaLing Blog (credit : Fanny and Alex) - DSC2246

  • 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.

VivaLing - Blog (Credit : Fanny and Alex) - DSC 7867

 

  • 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!

 

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 !

VivaLing - Erika & Romain - Photo 2

 

  • 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.

VivaLing - Erika & Romain - Photo 6

  • 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!

VivaLing - Erika & Romain - Photo 8

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

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

From Shanghai to Dubai – Gaelle, JB and Their 4 Children Fulfill Their Linguistic Hunger

Today we are kicking off a new section of our blog: the linguistic family portraits. Each month, a family shares with us their multilingual experience, the reason behind it, its practical details, the challenges if any and the guaranteed joys. The family also treats us with pictures from their personal media library. For this first portrait we are privileged to be hosted by Gaëlle, Jean-Baptiste (JB) and their four children in the sands of the Arabian peninsula.

  •  Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

From our early childhood, my husband JB and I, Gaelle, have been exposed to a global culture. We were both born in France. When I was 18 months old, my parents moved to the US for 2 years. Even though I do not remember it, my parents often tell me that I started to speak English at kindergarten. Then they moved to Africa, and they tell that I was so happy being the only blond girl among my African friends. On his side, JB moved to Brazil at the same age, and spent 6 unforgettable years in this wonderful country. When we got married, we were eager to go abroad together. We lived 6 months in Vienna (Austria) and 3 years in Chicago (USA). However we decided to go back to France to start our family… but we knew that we wanted to live abroad again with our kids. Our first 3 children were born in France. Then my husband got an offer to work in Shanghai (China) where our fourth child was born. Last year, we moved to Dubai for another professional opportunity. Chameaux - HAZ

  •  What are your best personal memories of multilingualism?

When we travel to a country for business or leisure, we like to be able to interact with the locals and discover their culture – this is how we are. Our best memories are in China where we came across wonderful people. Speaking Chinese allowed us to travel on our own in the remote provinces where guides would not have taken us. Arriving in a village as a family of 6 was highly unusual. The question they asked us the most was whether the 4 children were ours. When they realized we spoke Chinese, they became much more vocal and discussed many different topics. . Chinoise - HAZ

  • What is your children’s linguistic journey  ?

In order to kick off their foreign language capabilities, we put our kids in a bilingual program (French – English) at the French school in Shanghai. They had one day in French with a French teacher and one day in English with a native speaker. They also started Chinese lessons at the age of 5. They learned speaking and writing. As a young kid, writing in Chinese looks like a drawing game, which keeps them motivated. Now in Dubai, they are learning Arabic. They still have classes in English at school but the challenge is to maintain their level in Chinese. Panda - HAZ

  • Why do you want your kids to learn Chinese ?

We believe that in the 21st century, it will become more and more important to be able to do business with China. Speaking Chinese and understanding the culture will be a great asset to be successful in this environment. In addition, it is much easier to learn Chinese for a child than for an adult. And very few people make the effort to learn Chinese. Chinese communities are more and more numerous and powerful around the world. Companies will need people who can deal with them. Shanghai - HAZ

  • What does VivaLing bring you ?

Since the school does not offer Chinese lessons, we have been looking for a solution for the children. We first started with a Chinese teacher but we switched to Vivaling for the following reasons : – Vivaling lessons are at home and save a tremendous amount of time in commuting – Vivaling offers a strong pedagogy which allows the parents to make sure their kids are learning something. The sessions are well structured with focus on vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentences. The coach is great, has a lot of energy and the 25-minute lesson format is very effective. Parents have access to the lesson content, the video, and the coach’s feedback. It makes it easier to follow what the children are learning. In addition, the flashcard activities are a fun way for the children to do their homework. – Before we started with Vivaling, we were reluctant to lessons behind the computer over Internet. Now  we realize that it is great. Children love it and feel very comfortable with it. VivaLing - HAZ   Many thanks to Gaëlle and JB for sharing their experience. If you too would like to be featured in this series, do get in touch with us !

How language teaching methodologies have changed, and why they matter

Parents, have you ever wondered which pedagogical method your kids’ language teachers use ? They have changed drastically over time, catering to different needs – and achieving uneven results.

Many years ago, a Russian teacher was telling his young students about one of his best-appraised former classmates. He was a Frenchman learning Russian, who had perfect grammatical command and boasted an unmatched vocabulary. He only had one very small issue – which incidentally had never impacted his academic progress in any way: he was completely unable of holding any conversation whatsoever in Russian.

Our unfortunate student was just another victim of the most traditional pedagogical system used in second language teaching: the Grammar Translation method. The focus is on formal knowledge of the language and, more specifically, its grammar. The learning is deductive: master of his class, the teacher presents grammar rules and gives his students exercises for practice. Translation is among the most favored activities. This way of teaching does not aim at making the language a communication tool at all. It is rather similar to teaching classical or liturgical languages such as Ancient Greek, Latin, and to some extent Sanskrit. The approach, predominant in 19th century Europe, can only be found today in isolated pockets.


the-lady-teacher (credit scottthornbury.wordpress.com)

he audio-lingual method, born in the middle of the 20th century in the US, is based on behaviorist theories. With a great focus on oral and aural aspects, it undertakes to teach languages through repetition and drill. A variation of it, developed in the UK, is the PPP method : Presentation (of a concept), Practice (by exercises), and Production (by students). Sentences given by the teacher are repeated multiple times and learned by heart so as to develop automaticity. Exercises typically consist in variations of these sentences, for instance by substituting a word.

The audio-lingual approach fell quickly under fire from critics and had been by and large discredited since the 70s. As Harmer (2001) points out, “Audio-lingual methodology seems to banish all forms of language processing that help students sort out new language information in their own minds.”  It has nevertheless survived in numerous parts of the world.

Across the Chinese world, for instance, rote learning and repetition are still widespread at the expense of communication. Shumei Zhan (2009) reminds us that oral communication for English-learning Chinese remains very challenging, “even though they might be able to read Shakespeare’s works in original after years of study at school”. The Chinese also know how to laugh about it. A joke goes that one day, a young girl learning English falls off her bike and is stuck in a pit. An American comes by and asks : “Hello, how are you ?”. The little girl answers mechanically: “I am fine, thank you, and you ?”. The American, slightly puzzled, replies that he is fine too and goes away.

confucius institute at Betong municipality (credit english hanban)

Mandarin class at the Confucius Institute at Betong municipality (credit hanban)

In counter-reaction to the audio-lingual method, the 1970s saw the emergence of Communicative Language Teaching methods, where communication is not only the goal of but also the method of learning. The new educational paradigm uses implicit learning in authentic contexts, and not explicit learning in an artificial environment. Grammar is no longer taught, sentences are no longer repeated over and over again. Learning takes place through communication events such as conversations. Defined in a very flexible manner and without any real theoretical foundation, communicative teaching methods give birth to numerous variations. One such variation, a distant relative, builds on non-linguistic tasks to be carried out in the target language.

 

The first generation of Communicative Language Teaching also received its good share of criticism. Its effectiveness, to start with, has been questioned. Dornyei (2011) reminds us that pure implicit teaching of foreign language, including immersion, has not really lived up to expectations. Cultural barriers have also emerged: in the Confucian world, for example, removing the teacher from their central role to being a simple facilitator is not well taken. Finally, CLT does not meet needs as they are still expressed in many countries: passing exams which themselves focus on grammar and vocabulary.

Language Teaching Methodologies

 

CLT is undergoing significant change. In one of its most interesting developments, Dornyei advocates Principled Communicative Approach (PCA) which we will tackle in a future post. PCA combines implicit and explicit teaching in a structured way in order to achieve communicative competence alongside linguistic accuracy.

 

There is no single methodology that can consistently be rated the best. The correct approach is the one that meets the learner’s objectives, and that can be implemented in the learner’s environment. Anyway, as Canagarajah (1999) points out, what teachers practise in language classrooms rarely resembles any specific method as it is prescribed in manuals.

 

 

For more information :

–          Dörnyei, Z. (2013). Communicative Language Teaching in the twenty-first century: The ‘Principled Communicative Approach’. In J. Arnold & T. Murphey (Eds.), Meaningful action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching (pp. 161-171). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

–          Shumei Zhang (2009). The Role of Input, Interaction and Output in the Development of Oral Fluency. English Language Teaching. December 2009

–          Richard Badger, XiaoBao Yan (2009). To what extent is communicative language teaching a feature of IELTS classes in China. IELTS

–          Jack C. Richards (2006). Communicative Language Teaching today. Cambridge University Press

–          Jeremy Harmer (2001), The Practice of English Language Teaching.Essex: Pearson Education Ltd.

Is Your Child Gifted Enough to Learn Languages ?

Imagine a group of individuals of identical age but all different, immersed in a perfectly uniform educational universe. Their excellent teacher uses a single method for teaching; the individuals all spend the same amount of time on language activities, in the same conditions and with the same motivation. They are thus exposed to the same language acquisition drivers, with the same intensity. Yet, some learn better than others. Why is that?

The explanation to this interpersonal variance is not well known, but it has been given a name: Language Learning Aptitude (LLA).  It is, in a way, the explanatory variable of last resort after exhausting all known factors and differentiators. In less scientific parlance, and discarding pathological cases, one would say that a person is more or less talented at learning languages, whereas specialists would point to a higher or lower language learning aptitude.

LLA has been studied for a long time. John B. Carroll, a prominent psycholinguist, was one of the pioneers. He even developed the first test to measure it in the 50s : the MLAT (Modern Language Aptitude Test). This test, still in use in some U.S. government circles, is based on several components: the first one phonemic, the second one related to associative memory, the third one linked to grammatical memory, and the last one addressing inductive learning ability, i.e. the ability to induce rules governing the structure of the language. Other tests exist, one of the most recent ones developed in the early 2000s by Paul Meara. This test also focuses on a set of various ability components: oral, visual, associative, or grammatical inferences.

Various theories on language learning aptitude (credit: collaborativestudyguide.wikispaces.com LING+575)

Various theories on language learning aptitude (credit: collaborativestudyguide.wikispaces.com LING+575)

Language Learning Aptitude is assumed relatively stable over time, once developmental maturity is reached. Not surprisingly, the language proficiency achieved by a learner will be high when their LLA itself is high. The concept is however somewhat controversial, because of the risk of circularity: can the quality of learning in turn increase the LLA ?

In 2008, a team of Swedish researchers led by Abrahamsson looked into the evolution of LLA impact with age. More specifically, is the impact of LLA as important for children as it is for adults? In other words, does it make sense to say that a child is  more or less gifted at languages ​​and will this determine their learning ability? An experiment was conducted on 42 Spanish adults, all highly proficient in Swedish. Key detail: 31 of them had learned Swedish in their childhood and the other 11 after puberty. Having all reached adult age, they were subjected to a Language Learning Aptitude test.

As anticipated by the authors of the study, the LLA turned out to be a much better predictor of eventual attainment for adult learners than for children. Those who had learned as adults (and achieved a high proficiency) had a high LLA, whereas the LLA of the successful child learners displayed a high variance amongst individuals. This confirmed the hypothesis that being a child is in itself such an important advantage in language learning that it erases differences in language aptitude. To be  precise, LLA differences had indeed been almost entirely neutralized, but not completely – which came as a small surprise.

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comparing children (credit 2dayswoman)

Not much individual variance in children learning languages… (credit 2dayswoman)

Abrahamsson therefore concludes that having a high LLA significantly eases the learning of foreign languages ​​for adults, and perhaps gives a little help to children. But looking at the main confirmation of the study, one can answer the question you might be asking yourself: yes, your child is gifted enough for languages, since he or she is a child.

 

For more information :

Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2008). THE ROBUSTNESS OF APTITUDE EFFECTS IN NEAR-NATIVE SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITIONStudies in Second Language Acquisition30(04), 481–509.

Only Children Can (Really) Learn

It is a proven fact: the age of acquisition of a foreign language is a strong predictor of ultimate similarity to native speaking.  In other words, aiming for a native speaker level requires engaging in early learning. This is not only the finding of any adult marveling at the ability of young children to learn, or alternatively lamenting his own challenges to go beyond certain thresholds. These are also facts that all scientists now agree on.

This does not mean that adults cannot learn at all. Quite the contrary, adults can often start learning a second language much faster than children. During their lifetime they have developed cognitive abilities that are superior to those of children. When they tackle a language, they are immediately capable of structuring their learning and organizing their knowledge ; drawing phonetic, syntactic or semantic comparisons with other languages or language groups ; understanding or generalizing a rule.

But in the long run, the time and the energy that adults have to devote to their learning far exceed those of children. And it is not long before obstacles start popping up. Pronunciation is usually an insurmountable issue that emerges right from the outset. Adults soon reach a general cap in their learning. For many learners, building sentences is a conscious effort rather than the natural flow or the near reflex of a native speaker. Even highly talented adult learners will sooner or later be betrayed by a facet of speech : a sound never produced, a phrase never used, or a mistake never made by a native speaker.

Language proficiency and age of acquisition

Ultimate level of language proficiency, as a function of age of acquisition (credit : inspired from Patricia Kuhl)

So children learn much better than adults; yet adults can learn to some extent.  This is why the historic notion of a critical period is now giving way to that of a sensitive period for learning.  When the notion of a critical period prevailed, it was believed that at a certain age – somewhere between 4-5 years-old and teen-age depending on the authors – the ability of learning would drop drastically and almost vanish overnight. More refined theories would identify several critical periods depending on the element of language structure: phonology, morphology, semantics…  Except for phonology today’s belief is different. It is now generally accepted that there is a sensitive period that ends before the teenage years ; language learning is much easier during this sensitive period than afterwards.

Have you yourself noticed the great ease displayed by children when learning, compared to adults ?

You will find out in our next post why children learn better.