boy_puzzled (credit whiztimes)

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

(Credit  carryoverwords.com)

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.

Language proficiency and age of acquisition

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.

Nelson-Mandela-on-Language

10 good reasons to learn foreign languages

  • Discover Oneself

There is often a language that plays a special role in a family’s history. This language is that of the local land, forefathers and roots, culture or religion, or even in-laws. You may have come across this little child whose family immigrated one generation ago. For lack of a common language, she cannot communicate with her grand-parents who stayed back in their country. As she grows older, more and more questions come to her mind. By learning her parents’ language, she will also discover the culture and the country of her ancestors, and better understand where she comes from.

  • … and discover the Other

You may be in a large city or a small village, in the desert or the jungle, in an office or on the beach, abroad or in your own country. When the Other sees how you make the effort to address them in their own language, they will turn their head towards you, stare at you and start smiling. Whether your accent is barely detectable or clearly audible, whether your grammar is already perfect or still perfectible, the Other is moved by your respectful behaviour. They relax, open up, ready to share more personal thoughts now that a psychological filter has been removed. Language knowledge is an invaluable gate-opener towards the Other.

Nelson-Mandela-on-Language

Nelson Mandela on Language

 

  • Go on a trip

Be it for holidays, a stopover or a business trip, knowing the local language can change drastically your experience. Not knowing the language, have you ever been hostage to the exclusive grip of a guide monopolizing all exchanges with the outside world? Have you ever seen foreigners fall prey to a complete misperception of the host country because they could not communicate? Conversely, has the local language never made contact with locals, planned or not, much easier? It will sometimes enable you to find your way, have dinner at night, even get your passport back or go through customs.

  • … or go for good

Between 1990 and 2010, about 160 million migrants changed countries. Do you happen to be one of them? Whatever the reason to migrate, it is life-changing. Having a good command of the host language is a pre-requisite to social and economic integration. In some countries being granted a visa –let alone citizenship- is subject to a minimum level in the host country’s language. Parents sometimes struggle and prior knowledge of the language is a decisive advantage; children usually adjust much quicker and soon surpass their parents.

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Global Migrations 2005-2010 (credit Abel, Sander et al)

Global Migrations 2005-2010 (credit Abel, Sander et al)

 

  • Be successful at one’s career

As globalization increases, there are few jobs and positions left that do not require at least one, maybe two or even three foreign languages. English has become the unchallenged lingua franca of science. In business, one of the job interviews could take place in a foreign language. Language skills will enable the applicant to stand out from multiple candidates with similar résumés, if she manages to put forward her knowledge of Japanese, Spanish or Bahasa at the right moment. As for incumbent employees, some see their career development hampered by their weaknesses in international communication.

  • … and start by succeeding in one’s studies

The role of languages at school increases as that in life. In Singapore for instance, pupils take one of the two most important exams of their lives at the end of Primary School; half of the subjects are languages –English and their mother tongue. Elsewhere in the world, language level might decide which high school students will attend, impact significantly the matriculation results or give a huge edge in a University application file.

ScreenHunter_136 Mar. 30 21.43

The language section of a resume found on LinkedIn, exceptional yet increasingly common

 

 

  • Live better, live longer

Language practice shares cerebral mechanisms with those involved in old-age neurological diseases. Thus it has been noted that Alzheimer’s disease sets off on average five years later for bilinguals than for monolinguals. Do your linguistic gym and live better!

  • … and increase your cognitive capabilities

Knowing several languages is the ability to switch from one to another by focusing on the language used while ‘inhibiting’ the others. Multi-linguals resort to this capability even in non-linguistic fields. They demonstrate a bigger intellectual flexibility, a better ability to deal with ambiguity or apparent contradiction, and can cope with information while ignoring unnecessary or spurious signals.

factorial-task (credit dimensional-overlap.com)

Bilinguals are more successful than monolinguals at classical Strimulus Response tests where the stimulus contains conflicting elements to be processed or ignored (credit dimensional-overlap.com)

 

  • Marvel at other languages

You may be amongst those passionate people for whom discovering any new language triggers jubilant amazement. What sounds has this new language produced? What ingenuity will it come up with to convey such or such concept? Will it be isolating, flectional, agglutinative? How will it address, for instance, the possessive, given that some languages will alter the possessor and others the possessed, or both, or neither, some resorting to an affix, others to a particle, and others still elegantly doing without any grammatical appendix? Isn’t it extraordinary that the French version of this post should have 5368 characters in 1006 words, the English one 4978 characters in 980 words, and the Chinese one only 2174 Chinese characters?

  • …and understand better one’s own language

One’s mother tongue remains for very long the obvious response, the one found without having to look for it, the only possible option that no one even thinks of challenging. But opening up to a second language puts things in perspective. Without a doubt an additional language enables to further one’s native language knowledge. The language structure that such and such language has adopted becomes more palatable when compared to others: the origin of words is unveiled, roles in the sentence take shape and the meaning of words is refined. If shadow and shade have the same translation in French, does it not prove blatantly that ombre has two distinct meanings? Even the infamous agreement of the French past participle when used with the avoir auxiliary can be better understood if one is introduced to the Hindi ergative.

Levels of language structure (credit glogster.com)

Various levels of language structure : Phonology – Morphology – Syntax – Semantics – Pragmatics (credit glogster.com)

 

And what are YOUR reasons?