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Good news for those learning second language
Old 02-19-2011, 11:31 AM   #1
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Good news for those learning second language

From the FT this morning
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New studies have demolished the old myth that growing up bilingual is a mild cognitive handicap. On the contrary, recent research shows that children who speak two languages benefit from the extra mental exercise – and that in old age bilingualism protects the brain against dementia.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington heard that bilingual speakers tend to outperform monolinguals in certain mental abilities, such as editing out irrelevant information and focusing on what is important.
“There is a set of cognitive processes known as the executive control system, which is the most important part of your mind,” said Ellen Bialystok, psychology professor at York University, Toronto. “In a large programme of research we have been able to show that this executive control system is enhanced in people who are actively bilingual.”
./.
She said infants thrived mentally, learning two languages at the same time from birth. They never confused the two.
“These findings provide even stronger evidence that human infants are equally prepared to grow up bilingual as they are monolingual,” said Prof Werker. “The task of language separation is something they are prepared to do from birth.”
I was not aware that some thought growing up bilingual was a cognitive handicap. All the nieces and nephews on DW's side grew up bilingual (as did our children), some trilingual, and they often seem strange but never handicapped.

Lots of folks here are pursuing a second language in their FIRE days, and this article points to additional benefits.

Link to article here FT.com / US / Society - Bilingualism delays dementia, say experts
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Old 02-19-2011, 12:33 PM   #2
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Originally Posted by MichaelB View Post
I was not aware that some thought growing up bilingual was a cognitive handicap.
Me, neither, but it isn't surprising, since a few years ago there was a very loud group of English-only advocates inveighing against the bilingual method of teaching English in our schools, in California and elsewhere. I ran across the following list of research abstracts, Cognitive - American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages put together by an organization of foreign language teachers (who of course have a vested interest).

Edit: Bialystok summarizes some research showing vocabulary and other difficulties of bilinguals on page 8 of the document here: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/...stok_final.pdf . (Sorry that I couldn't copy-paste the paragraph here).

I doubt there would be any cognitive benefit to learning a second language as an adult.
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Old 02-19-2011, 03:35 PM   #3
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It is very evident to me that children who are brought up bilingual have a much easier time picking up other languages.....I live/work in Europe and all business is conducted in English when that is not the 'mother tongue' of most. Amazing to me how well they do. Amazing to me how easily they flip between languages.....although I was just in the hospital here in Germany for a few days and amazed myself at how much German I was able to speak....even the staff was amazed. I guess being surrounded helps :-)

I think that children who learn the languages before thirteen are able to speak those languages without huge accents either way in favor of one language. My husband learned English in the USA as he was 12-13 and grew up before that speaking Polish - he now speaks both fluently and with no noticeable accent either way. My Spanish has an American accent as well as my German.....although I've been told my German is very clear and correct - I only speak hoch Deutch and not a dialect.

In any case, had I had children, I would have had them studying/speaking 2-3 language while growing up if possible. Great way to expand the mind - languages help define how cultures and people think - and they are different.

Just to add on - I read where Chinese has a limited concept of individualisn - not many words to describe I or my. It's always in relation to the group - they also don't have time tenses - German doesn't use a future tense very often - the words most often used can denote the present or the future. Spanish and the other Romantic languages use the subjunctive a lot - I find it blurs the distinction between reality and spirituality - i.e. they don't have as distinct divisions between those 'worlds.' I've noticed that in the literature as well.

In any case, one can see how the language would affect the societal and individual culture and development and vice versa. The brain is a plastic medium and the thoughts, which are rendered into words/language, can change or be changed. The ability to speak a second language and notice those distinct differences could broaden the mind and perspective.

Off soapbox!
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Old 02-20-2011, 10:48 AM   #4
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Just to add on - I read where Chinese has a limited concept of individualisn - not many words to describe I or my. It's always in relation to the group - they also don't have time tenses - German doesn't use a future tense very often - the words most often used can denote the present or the future.
Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed that language systems, specifically as they handle tense and aspect, can have a profound effect on thought and perception. His writings on this were collected in the volume Language, Thought, and Reality, which I found totally convincing when I first read it. The view is still influential, but only outside psychology and linguistics, since when it has been put to the test, no evidence for it has been found. I talked to a couple of anthropologists, Carl and Flo Voegelin, who had investigated Hopi, Whorf's premier example language; they said they had failed to find in Hopi the special tense system Whorf claimed to exist. It's all very disappointing.

Edit: I've just read the Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity and I think it's a good discussion.
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Old 02-20-2011, 11:19 AM   #5
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Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed that language systems, specifically as they handle tense and aspect, can have a profound effect on thought and perception. His writings on this were collected in the volume Language, Thought, and Reality, which I found totally convincing when I first read it. The view is still influential, but only outside psychology and linguistics, since when it has been put to the test, no evidence for it has been found. I talked to a couple of anthropologists, Carl and Flo Voegelin, who had investigated Hopi, Whorf's premier example language; they said they had failed to find in Hopi the special tense system Whorf claimed to exist. It's all very disappointing.
Sounds like you have studied this - as for profundity, I'm not the expert, however, I might argue for subtlety - i.e. and I am just hypothesizing here, if one's language doesn't have a lot of terminology related to individuality, then ideas or concepts that stress that would be difficult to convey and therefore understand. One might value that which is more community oriented versus individually oriented because it fit more with their linguistic paradigm....it could be subtle. My example with the Romantic languages: when I read Spanish literature, I find it very difficult to determine if the author is speaking of their sensory reality versus their 'dream' reality. I find they tend to not distinguish as much between those two 'paradigms.' It is difficult for me as I believe English doesn't allow for as much (it's hard for me to find the words in English right now!) description or fluidity between those paradigms....I also find it very difficult to know when and how to use the subjunctive in Spanish effectively. I find German to be very crisp and rules oriented but outside of that, not as creative. German is very suited towards a technological or scientific view - one can add pieces of words together to make new words - it can be quite handy! Germans will understand you even if you don't use the proper word but describe functionally what it is you have or are doing.

In any case, I am reporting my experiences....and have noticed the differences in cultural practices that might be accompanied with the languages or ability to describe/relate one's existence.

Thanks for bringing to my attention the scholarly work - I will probably read it some day :-)
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Old 02-20-2011, 11:28 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by deserat View Post
It is very evident to me that children who are brought up bilingual have a much easier time picking up other languages.....I live/work in Europe and all business is conducted in English when that is not the 'mother tongue' of most. Amazing to me how well they do. Amazing to me how easily they flip between languages.....
Most Europeans who do business in English have spent a lot of time studying it, because of the obvious economic incentives. But they have typically not been "brought up bilingual". They will typically have had 120-180 hours a year of English from age 11 and up, plus in small countries where dubbing TV and movies is not economically viable (Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal) they can get some practice by listening to a variety of native speaker accents on TV. Then there's study visits, etc etc.

Our kids grew up in France and are perfectly bilingual, and it's a million miles from a learned language. DS speaks good German, but no better than anyone else with his hours of German tuition; DD is studying Italian and Russian, and while she's doing pretty well, I'm fairly it has more to do with genes (I'm good at learning languages, and DW has a degree in French and German) than her bilingual start.

There's a small correlation in that the fact that they were bilingual meant that they went to schools which were varying degrees of "international", where they were thus exposed to native speakers among their language teachers, but they still had to learn all the vocabulary and grammar from books.

Studying Spanish for a couple of hours a week is a great thing for seniors to do, but it's never going to make you bilingual.

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I think that children who learn the languages before thirteen are able to speak those languages without huge accents either way in favor of one language.
The research which I saw says 8 rather than 13, but perhaps it depends if you're moving to the country, or just learning the language. A friend of ours was round last night wiht her 6 year old son, who is bilingual English/French and has just started Spanish at school, with a native-speaker teacher - his Spanish accent is perfect even if his vocabulary is only 30 words.
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