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To Read Chinese One Must Start Early

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

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

cheval

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

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

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

ma ma English

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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!

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 !

Your Child’s Journey with VivaLing

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

 

The VivaLing framework v2.6 English Image

5 Myths about Your Child Learning Another Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Myth 4 : Multilingual kids confuse their different languages

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

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

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

Convinced ? Let us know !

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

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 !

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.