the effects of bilingualism

A new study explains why bilingual children perform better

Children who experience two languages from birth typically become native speakers of both, while adults often struggle with second language learning and rarely attain native-like fluency. With roughly two thirds of the world’s population estimated to understand or speak at least two languages, bilingualism has become the norm rather than the exception in many parts of the world.

Although some might be concerned that bilingualism puts children at risk for language delay or academic failure, research does not support this. To the contrary, studies consistently show that, besides the obvious practical and economic gains, bilingualism leads to a number of cognitive advantages. Emerging research supports the view that the capacity to learn language can be equally applied to two languages as to one.

A recent study conducted by the University of Washington (Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences) compares the major milestones in bilingual and monolingual language acquisition, outlines the reasons behind the frequently observed variability in bilingual language learning, and describes the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. Here are the main outcomes.

the effects of bilingualism

1- Language learning in the first year of life

Until about 6 months of age, infants are capable of hearing the differences between the consonants and vowels that make up words universally across all languages. By 12 months of age, discrimination of sounds from the infant’s native language significantly improves, while discrimination of non-native sounds declines (Kuhl et al., 2006). Infants’ initial universal ability becomes more language specific, like that of an adult, by 12 months of age.

Research shows that the infant brain is more than capable of learning two languages simultaneously. Young children learn language rapidly; however, the quality and quantity of language they hear plays a key role in the learning process. One study shows that infants exposed to a new language at 9 months of age in play sessions by a live tutor learn in just 6 hours to discriminate foreign language sounds at levels equivalent to infants exposed to that language from birth. However, no learning occurs if the same material on the same schedule is presented via video or audiotapes (Kuhl, Tsao, & Liu, 2003). Thus, early language learning is critically dependent on social interactions, and on the quality of speech that children hear.

Taken together, in monolingual and bilingual children alike, language growth reflects the quality and quantity of speech that infants hear. Young infants learn best through frequent, high-quality, social interactions with native speakers.

the benefits of bilingualism

2- Vocabulary and grammatical development

Young children exposed to two languages from birth typically begin producing their first syllables and their first words at the same age as children exposed to a single language. Furthermore, the bilingual course of vocabulary and grammatical growth looks very much like the trajectory followed by monolingual children; the kinds of words children learn, and the relationship between vocabulary and grammatical growth in each language replicate the monolingual pattern.

Nevertheless, the effect of bilingual experience on language production and comprehension is often reported as a lag in vocabulary and grammatical acquisition. Although some studies have shown that bilingual children are within monolingual norms for the age at which they achieve basic vocabulary and grammatical milestones of language development, several studies report that bilinguals control a smaller vocabulary in each language than monolinguals, and lag behind on grammatical measures when skills are measured on a single language (Hoff et al., 2012). Given the extensive research showing that children’s language skills reflect the quantity of language that they hear, these findings are not surprising. Bilinguals split their time between two languages, and thus, on average, hear less of each language. Importantly, however, studies consistently show that bilingual children do not lag behind monolingual peers when both languages are considered. For example, bilingual vocabulary sizes, when combined across both languages, are equal to or greater than those of monolingual children. Similar findings are reported on measures of grammatical knowledge.

3-Learning to read

Reading is a complex process acquired through explicit training, typically after a child has learned to speak in full sentences. Studies with monolingual children demonstrate the critical role of oral language in reading and academic success. Thousands of U.S. children find themselves in situations where they must acquire the fundamentals of reading in a language that they do not speak, or where their linguistic knowledge is extremely poor. Not surprisingly, studies often report that bilingual immigrant children perform worse than monolingual English children in reading acquisition. However, research demonstrates that exposure to two languages increases phonological awareness, which is the ability to recognize and manipulate the sound units of language and is one of the best predictors of reading ability.

the benefits of bilingualism

4-Cognitive benefits of bilingualism

Contrary to the once held concern that bilingualism causes confusion, research shows that simultaneous exposure to two languages is related to several cognitive benefits. Part of the concern about confusion arises due to “code mixing” or “code switching.”

Bilingual children occasionally combine words or phrases of both languages when interacting with their peers, parents of teachers. It is important to understand that code switching is natural for bilingual adults and children and reflects the fact that bilinguals often know certain words better in one language than in the other. Code switching in bilingual adults and children is rule governed, not haphazard, and bilingual children follow the same principles as bilingual adults (Paradis, Nicoladis, & Genesee, 2000).

Rather than causing confusion, it is now understood that the constant need to manage attention between two languages fosters children’s thinking about language per se, and leads to increased metacognitive and metalinguistic skills (Bialystok, 2007). Bilingual infants as young as 7 and 12 months have been shown to be more flexible learners of language patterns compared to monolingual infants (Kovacs & Mehler, 2009). Bilingual toddlers exhibit a prolonged period of flexibility in their interpretation of potential words (Graf Estes & Hay, 2015), and bilingual 2- and 3-year-olds are more flexible learners of additional labels for previously known actions or objects, whereas monolingual children often find it difficult to learn labels for actions or objects that already have a name (Yoshida, 2008).

A growing body of evidence also suggests that bilinguals exhibit enhancements in executive functioning, which have been observed in children, young adults and middleaged and older adults (Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2012). The primary processes of the executive functioning systems are switching attention, flexible thinking (cognitive flexibility), and updating information in working memory. Bilingualism requires the constant managing of attention to the target language. Research suggests that experience with two languages enhances the relevant brain networks, making them more robust for executive functioning throughout the lifespan. Interestingly, the accumulating effect of dual language experience translates into protective effects against cognitive decline with aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease (Craik, Bialystok, & Freedman, 2010). Recent brain studies indicate that differences between monolinguals and bilinguals in executive functioning are present at an early age (Ferjan Ramírez et al., 2016), and persist throughout the school years (Arredondo et al., 2016) and into adulthood (Abutalebi et al., 2011; Stocco & Prat, 2014).

 

the benefits of bilingualism

Conclusion

A growing body of research indicates that the experience of bilingualism alters not only the scope of language acquisition and use, but also a broader scope of cognitive processing from a very young age onward. Bilingual children perform equally well or better than monolinguals when both languages are considered. Studies suggest that optimal learning is achieved when children start learning two languages at an early age (i.e. between birth and 3 years of age) through high-quality interactions with live human beings, and both languages are supported throughout the toddler, preschool, and school years. Supportive environments for bilingual learning encourage parents and caregivers to use the language in which they are most fluent and comfortable, value both languages equally, and view bilingualism as an asset that brings about important cognitive, social, and economic benefits.

 

Source: http://ilabs.uw.edu/Bilingual_Language_Learning_in_Children.pdf

 

comptines enfants chinoise

Six songs to improve your children’s Mandarin learning

Dear parents, did you sing “if you are happy and you know it” or “Jingle bells” with your children, when they first started learning English? Well, what if they’re learning Mandarin and feel like singing? Here are six songs for different age groups. Let’s sing together!

 

For 3-6 years old

Sounds from animals 动物的叫声

 

Easy catchy melody, easy vocabulary, super simple but useful sentences.

 

This song not only teaches your kids about animals, but also the sounds they make in Chinese! (Yes, the animals’ sounds are different in Chinese than in English) It will also help them learn some basic verbs such as walk (走), swim (游) and roll (滚), too.

 

Two tigers 两只老虎

 

Every country has its own version of this song. Every child knows the melody!

It’s interesting for kids to learn and sing a version of the same song in another language, plus the lyrics are really funny: one tiger has no ears, another tiger has no tail…

It’s nonsense, but kids don’t care! Trust us, once they’ve learned this song, they’ll never forget it.

 

For 6-9 years old

 

Where is my friend? 朋友在哪里

 

Beautiful and easy melody, contains numbers, and some basic everyday vocabulary and simple question structure.

 

White little bunny 小白兔白又白

 

Every Chinese child knows this song. It’s extremely catchy and popular in China.

It’s a song children sing with their grandparents, parents, kindergarten classmates and anybody you can think of.

It contains easy vocabulary like white bunny, ears, carrot, vegetables, etc.

Having learned this song, your kid will share a “universal language and topic” with Chinese kids. The adults will be impressed too!

 

For 9 years old and above

 

Counting ducks 数鸭子

 

You may know how to count 12345 in Chinese, but how about when the number are not in order? “Counting ducks” gives you a good blend of easy and advanced expressions for numbers in Chinese.

 

The yellow bird 黄鹂鸟

 

Is this a song, or a funny joke? No one can tell. But we know it has an absolutely beautiful melody with funny words that contain some advanced vocabulary and expressions.

Once your kids understand the meaning of the lyrics, they will laugh and love this song for sure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Man vs Robot - VivaLing

  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.

 

Man vs Robot - VivaLing 2

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.

 

christmas-decorations-1150006_640

 

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.

Back-To-School-test

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.”

vivaling-learn-language-with-fun

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.

vivaling-online-language-teaching-young-learners-5

 

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!

Back-To-School-Picture

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.

Back-To-School-Picture

  •  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!

AEDI Synapses function of age

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.

Hensch - Brain plasticity

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 !

Double-pendulum-trajectory-credit-Georgia-Ahimsa-Williams

Chaos inside my child’s second language – should I worry ?

Have you ever felt disconcerted by the unpredictable and chaotic progress of your child’s second language acquisition ? Dazzling progress seems to be followed by periods of slower growth, sometimes even laborious, not to mention times of regression. She seemed to master this notion, and all of a sudden she stumbles where she never would have in the past. Why does he now treat this irregular verb as a regular one ? And why does she no longer pick up any of these expressions that were so obvious to her previously ? But there are more twists to the story : soon afterwards, he will surprise you by unexpected expressions that will amaze you again.

Second language acquisition is as chaotic as, for example, the weather. Do you remember the butterfly imagined by Lorenz which modified the weather in Dallas by flapping its wings in Tokyo ? A seemingly trivial and barely perceptible action could have considerable consequences in a totally unpredictable fashion and far from where it originated. Even the simplest of complex systems, the double pendulum (or pendulum with two degrees of freedom) behaves in a way which is extremely hard to anticipate. Not that proper equations do not exist, but the system is so sensitive that any dynamic forecast becomes impossible. Look at the movement of the red ball of the double pendulum variant shown below when the main pendulum is made to swing. Forecasting its trajectory is just impossible.

 

Language learning is itself a complex process. It is remarkably well described by the Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) that was first introduced to linguistics less than twenty years ago. Second language acquisition depends indeed on a large number of cognitive and social variables : quantity of language input and output, feedback, the learner’s intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, the learner’s interactions with individuals, groups, or surrounding society, the learner’s first and second language knowledge, learning history and duration … and the list continues. These variables are not only numerous but also interconnected through rich and complex dynamics.

Learning is highly non-linear : the effects are not proportional to the forces applied. Consider now hiking as a metaphor for a linguistic journey. During the hike milestones will be crossed and left behind one after the other. As for language learning outcomes, they are not a nice orderly series of elements mastered one after the other. They are a dynamic set, the components of which sometimes overlap, scattered over a large “learning” surface area filled with pitfalls hard to avoid and overcome, or mountains hard to climb. Each new learning stage is the result of combined variables and influences applied to the previous stage. Lastly, the learning journey is closely linked to the child’s neurological, physiological and psychological starting point.

Are you now convinced ? The fine path of Second Language Acquisition is by and large unpredictable. In the case of children, however, the end state is statistically more likely to be a good command of the language. Chaos by itself is therefore not to be feared, but tamed. The key point to remember for the educator, as is well known, is to customize the teaching to the largest extent possible to the learner, their history, their present state ; to react with the utmost attention to each development and to guide them towards their ultimate objective. The main take away for the learner and their family is, once the right educator is found, to never get discouraged and conversely to always persevere. This is what you are already doing, isn’t it ? This will lead your child from chaos to actual learning, from struggle to success.

 

For more details :

De Bot, K., Lowie, W. & Verspoor, M. (2007). A dynamic systems theory approach to second language acquisition. Bilingualism : Language and Cognition, 10(1), 2007, 7-21.

 

 

Portrait of smart schoolgirls and schoolboys looking at the laptop in classroom

Will your child forget a language learnt in his early childhood?

Portrait of smart schoolgirls and schoolboys looking at the laptop in classroom

What will be left? This is the recurring – and a little anxious – question being asked by parents about the languages learned by their children during infancy or early childhood, especially when these languages are not practiced thereafter.

We already wrote a blog post on this topic that many of you read. The conclusion, based on a study of C. Landing from 2003, seemed clear: a language learned in childhood can be forgotten as quickly as it is learned if it is not used or at least kept after puberty.

And yet, the fine interpretation of the results of this study has been questioned by many other publications. At the end of 2014, J. Pierce of McGill University in Canada demonstrated for the first time that the neural representation of a language acquired in early childhood was firmly rooted in the brain, even if the subject had no conscious memory of that language after having no exposure at all for a long time.

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The demonstration was made with Chinese orphans adopted at the age of 13 months by French families, and completely cut off from their original language. 12 years later, although they had no conscious memory of their language, their brains responded to the tonal system of the Chinese language just as Chinese native speakers. Indeed, while listening to phonemes pronounced with different tones, their brain was using language centres located in the left hemisphere. In comparison, a control group of French children was using acoustic processing functions able to analyse non-linguistic complex signals in the right hemisphere of their brain.

Is having a brain that seems to keep memories of a past language of which the subject has no conscious recollection really useful? Yes, as Leher Singh from the National University of Singapore wrote in 2011. She was also interested in orphans, this time from the Indian subcontinent, adopted in their infancy by American families and completely cut off from their original language. Indian languages contain phonetic contrasts on “t” and “d” that are imperceptible to the ears of Americans. Many years after their change of continent, these little adopted children didn’t seem to be able to perceive these contrasts. At least initially. However, after one month of exposure, the adopted children had made considerable progress in the discrimination of these sounds, in comparison to a control group of young Americans.

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So here is what science teaches us to date:
• around the age of one year, the infant’s brain loses forever the ability to discriminate sounds (consonants, vowels, tones) absent from its own language or its linguistic environment. To perceive contrasts from other languages, a child must be exposed to them during this critical “Phonetic period,” around the age of one year.
• Not being exposed to the language of origin does not mean that this language will be completely forgotten. Its traces remain unconscious, neurologically, which significantly facilitate the learning.

Consequently, one should not hesitate to expose his child to one or more target languages while still a baby, even if these languages are not used immediately or intended to be relearned later. This is an investment that can be made only at this critical period of life. Almost all parents ignore that. Not you.

For more information:

Lara J. Pierce, Denise Klein, Jen-Kai Chenc, Audrey Delcenseried, Geneseea and Fred (2015). Mapping the unconscious maintenance of a lost first language. PNAS, 112, February 2015.

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

Pallier C, et al. (2003). Brain imaging of language plasticity in adopted adults: Can a second language replace the first? Cereb Cortex 13 (2), 155-161.