Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Young Learners: Unravelling how children become bilingual so easily

We recently had an enquiry on this blog from Kira into how to teach children English. There is some GOOD news and some BAD news. First the GOOD news: Babies being raised bilingually by simply speaking to them in two languages can learn two languages in the time it takes to learn one. The brain tunes out the sounds that don't fit. More still, being bilingual seems to make the brain more flexible:
"The researchers tested 44 12-month-olds to see how they recognized three-syllable patterns — nonsense words, just to test sound learning. Sure enough, gaze-tracking showed the bilingual babies learned two kinds of patterns at the same time — like lo-ba-lo or lo-lo-ba — while the one-language babies learned only one, concluded Agnes Melinda Kovacs of Italy's International School for Advanced Studies."
The BAD news? "While new language learning is easiest by age 7, the ability markedly declines after puberty." Meh.

Oops, but this is "Ask Auntie Web", right? So here is some more GOOD news: You can acheive similar success teaching elementary school children and even adults (!) by using "Motherese", the slow exaggeration of sounds that parents use with babies - and a computer:

"Japanese college students who'd had little exposure to spoken English underwent 12 sessions listening to exaggerated "Ls" and "Rs" while watching the computerized instructor's face pronounce English words. Brain scans — a hair dryer-looking device called MEG, for magnetoencephalography — that measure millisecond-by-millisecond activity showed the students could better distinguish between those alien English sounds. And they pronounced them better, too, the team reported in the journal NeuroImage.

"It's our very first, preliminary crude attempt but the gains were phenomenal," says Kuhl."

Thank you to Brooke Shanley-Hurtado (spkspanglish), who teaches elementary and middle school bilingual classes in Chicago, for this tip! Her blog SpkSpanglish is here.


Patchworks Films said...

This is a fascinating article. If you are interested in bilingual education you might be interested in the new film SPEAKING IN TONGUES about four children's progress at immersion schools in San Francisco. It's quite fascinating to see a kindergartner from the projects speaking fluent Cantonese. The web site is http://speakingintoungesfilms.info & the trailer is at http://bit.ly/GwUn0

Anne Hodgson said...

Thanks Patchwork Films!
What an interesting film. Quotes from the trailer: "The US is rapidly becoming a Tower of Babel". And Obama: "Instead of worrying about immigrants can learn English, you should be making sure your child can speak Spanish".

By the way, Alex Case has a feisty post on the issue of whether small kids really learn all that fast. He argues that teeagers learn foreign languages faster.


While that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, I do think that teaching children English to prepare them for their immediate surroundings is a very different proposition from teaching them EFL at a young age, when they don't need it in their immediate world, to prepare them for later.