Bilingualism

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A wonderful TED talk called The Linguistic Genius of Babies shows (http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies.html?awesm=on.ted.com_babybrain)

astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another — by listening to the humans around them and “taking statistics” on the sounds they need to know. Clever lab experiments (and brain scans) show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world.

I am grateful to my Inanimate Alice colleague in Argentina who flagged up an article about the benefits of learning more than one language which nicely complements the video. (I  can locate the link if you need it). My own Spanish is fairly rudimentary but I managed to make some sense of it – I think.

The article focused on a recent research project at The University of Granada, along with other studies carried out over the past 40 years that draw similar conclusions. Researchers analysed the brain activity of children who speak more than one language fluently and regularly. They found that bilingual children have better memory, attention spans and greater flexibility of thought than mono-linguists.

Para el doctor Poulin-Dubois estos hallazgos son sumamente relevantes porque ayudan a mejorar el control de la atención. “El tener un alto conocimiento de dos idiomas, y utilizarlos frecuentemente -es decir ser bilingüe- es beneficioso dado que mejora la capacidad de prestar atención e incrementa el entrenamiento de la memoria”, concluyó el especialista.

It seems that in timed problem solving tests, the thought processes of bilingual people move rapidly from one language to another in order to retrieve information. Thus, knowing 2 words for the same concept creates flexibility and, it is claimed, freer thinking. Naturally this requires practice but this research is evidence of the extreme adaptability and plasticity of the brain.

I attended a conference on dyslexia in Paris years ago (tough job but someone had to do it) and was astounded at the ability of the translators to listen to technical language and deliver it in another language almost simultaneously. They were able to identify central concepts and activate the appropriate section of their brains to interpret for a mixed audience swiftly and clearly, while making judgements about what stimuli to ignore. No wonder they could work only in 20 minute shifts: the cognitive effort involved is tremendous.

It is claimed that the greater flexibility inherent in speaking 2 languages regularly contributes to a stimulating cycle in which learners continue to stretch their mental muscles. This results in improved creative or lateral thinking. At the same time, bilinguals put more thought into communicating as they need to consider the language they must use with each person with whom they speak. They think at a meta level when conversing.

Other studies have shown that the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are apparent from 2 years of age. It’s not just that the 2 year olds solve problems better, but that they are less distractible than mono-linguists: they are accustomed to listening and adapting to two modes of speech.

I tend to be suspicious of specific programmes that purport to improve learning disproportionately. However, I am convinced that being fluent in more than one language does create transferable skills. I suspect this is not least because learning a language inevitably involves understanding something of the culture of another country. I know that after my weekly Spanish class, my brain hurts. I am consciously attempting to remember and integrate and connect to an enormous amount of information (vocabulary, grammar, my name) while communicating (at a very basic level) and being aware of audience. And, after all, what better way to teach our children to be aware of different perspectives, other points of view?

So what? Well, it is too late once children are in our schools to create bilingual speakers except in very specific circumstances, and not practicable either. I suppose from this we can glean yet more evidence about the amazing plasticity of the brain and how important it is to flex those mental muscles.

But now I’m going to slob in front of ‘The Sopranos’!

Are phonics as important in languages other than English?

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I have been thinking about the apparent dissonance between the ‘iceberg theory’ of language – that language learning is innate – and the differences in the brains of people with different native languages.

Perhaps the two are not incompatible. After all the brain is amazingly plastic. Baby babble is indistinguishable until around a year old when distinctive sounds emerge. Apparently Japanese babies stop being able to articulate ‘l’ sounds when they reach 12 months. 

When children are learning to read English, there is a greater demand on decoding (because of the variety of etymological roots  which results in frequency of irregular spellings) than in other more consistent languages.

The specific phonological skills used in reading depend on the reader’s expertise, the word to be read, and the writing system, involved. A highly regular, highly frequent word like ‘carpet’ will take far less phonological processing than, say, ‘thought’. Readers of German or Italian, for example, quickly learn the far more consistent letter-sound rules and bypass almost a year of laborious decoding that English requires.

English readers (and French for example) appear to employ more of the regions of the brain devoted to identifying words in the area in which visualisation of words is thought to occur. Presumably the greater emphasis on morphemes and irregular words (such as ‘yacht’) requires more visual and orthographic representational knowledge during processing. The shorter time needed for decoding in regular languages allows more time for comprehension than in English.

When phonological skills play a more significant role in reading acquisition, as they do in less regular languages like English and French, phoneme awareness and decoding accuracy are often very undeveloped – and are good indicators of dyslexia. When these skills play a less dominant role (in transparent languages like German, and the more logographic writing systems), processing speed becomes the stronger diagnostic predictor of reading performance, and reading fluency and comprehension issues dominate the profile of dyslexia.

In these more transparent languages – Spanish, German, Finnish, Dutch, Greek and Italian – the child with dyslexia exhibits fewer problems with decoding words and more problems reading connected text fluently and with good comprehension.

So much for those international comparisons of reading levels: useful perhaps as a snapshot of where children are in the acquisition of literacy but certainly no help in determining whether the population as a whole is more or less literate or whether teachers are failing in their efforts.

I have connected posts here and here and here  and here.

Indicators of dyslexia across different languages

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Once more I have been dipping into Maryanne Wolf’s magnificent book, Proust and the Squid, for enlightenment on the differences inherent in identifying dyslexia in speakers of different languages.

The specific phonological skills used in reading depend on the reader’s expertise, the word to be read, and the writing system, involved. A highly regular, highly frequent word like ‘carpet’ (or words in more regular languages) will take far less phonological processing than, for example, ‘phonological ’.

Wolf writes:

Readers of, say, German or Italian quickly learn the far more consistent letter-sound rules and bypass almost a year of laborious decoding that English requires. English and French readers appear to employ more of the regions of the brain devoted to identifying words in the area in which visualisation of words is thought to occur.

Presumably the greater emphasis on morphemes and irregular words (such as ‘yacht’) requires more visual and orthographic representational knowledge during processing.

The shorter time needed for decoding in regular languages allows more time for comprehension than in English.

When phonological skills play a more significant role in reading acquisition, as they do in less regular languages like English and French, phoneme awareness and decoding accuracy are often very deficient – and are good indicators of dyslexia. When these skills play a less dominant role (in transparent languages like German, and the more logographic writing systems), processing speed becomes the stronger diagnostic predictor of reading performance, and reading fluency and comprehension issues dominate the profile of dyslexia.

In these more transparent languages – Spanish, German, Finnish, Dutch, Greek and Italian – the child with dyslexia exhibits fewer problems with decoding words and more problems reading connected text fluently and with good comprehension.

So much for those international comparisons of reading levels: useful perhaps as a snapshot of where children are in the acquisition of literacy but certainly no help in determining whether the population as a whole is more or less literate or whether teachers are failing in their efforts.