12 August 2013

How the brain learns languages – the case of bilinguals

The Brain

Here is a fascinating article about how the brain learns languages written by François Grosjean, Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics, Neuchâtel University, Switzerland. The article discusses:

” whether verbs and nouns in Chinese are represented in the same way in the brain as are their counterparts in English: verbs in the frontal region of the brain and nouns in the posterior region. The authors noted that verbs and nouns in Chinese do not contain grammatical markers as do similar words in English and other Western languages. In addition, many Chinese verbs can occur as subjects, and nouns as predicates. Finally, Chinese has a much higher number of ambiguous words than English that can be used either as a noun or a verb ……..

Having shown that very different languages, in this case English and Chinese, have different neural representations for nouns and verbs, the interesting question became: What about bilinguals who store and process these two languages?”

For bilingual speakers of Chinese and English who learned the languages early, “the researchers found that Chinese nouns and verbs involved activation of common brain areas (thus replicating the first study) whereas English verbs engaged many more regions than did English nouns.”

” bilingual learners may deal with word information of the two languages separately. Thus, when word class is an important marker during language development, as it is in English, early bilinguals will acquire this language-specific property. In sum, the bilingual brain is highly plastic.’

This turned out not to be the case for a group of Chinese who learned English after the age of 12:

“They too showed no significant differences in brain activation for nouns versus verbs in Chinese (once again replicating the earlier study) but, to the surprise of the researchers, they showed little neural differentiation of nouns and verbs in English, unlike the early bilinguals.”

However, the researchers “noted aspects of their data that seemed to show that with more linguistic exposure to English, and hence improved language proficiency, the late bilinguals may yet develop neural sensitivity to noun-verb differences in their second language.”

What this means is that the brain perceives these parts of speech differently in the two languages. This confirms my impression that a noun or verb or adjective in one language, may have a different function in another language.

In Chinese, for example, adjectives can behave like verbs. You can have the past tenses of adjectives.

“他老了. 他胖了. 她生气了.” etc. (“He has grown old. He has gotten fat. He got angry.”)

The fact that differences in the roles of parts of speech are not equally clearly delineated in all languages, is only one of the reasons why I remain skeptical about Chomsky’s universal grammar.

11 August 2013

About learning French

Some thoughts about the French language and how to learn it.

8 August 2013

Les enfants, apprennent ils mieux les langues que les adultes?

En général oui. Les enfants apprennent mieux. Mais les adultes peuvent apprendre des enfants comment mieux apprendre.

7 August 2013

Do children learn languages faster than adults?

children learn

I think that children do. There is ample evidence of this, for example amongst immigrants to Canada. Rare is the family where the children don’t speak English, or French, much better than their parents. We have had a lively exchange on this at our forum at LingQ, with many commenters presenting the opposite view.

I had the following to say.

“I think that adults can learn how to learn like children. The unfortunate reality is that very few do. I just finished a fascinating discussion with one of my Russian tutors, Vladimír, who lives in Winnipeg. We both agree that there must be some way that we can provide an environment that enables adults to learn more like children. For this to happen, the adults would have to want to become part of a society that speaks that target language. Their motivation should be to join in that society, not just to learn the language. This is difficult for adults to do. It is difficult for them to abandon, even temporarily, their culture of origin. They hang back in the comfort, and perhaps even the sense of superiority, of their own culture. Or else they are discouraged by the fact that they are condemned to sound clumsy and less intelligent in the new language for quite a long time.

Most children don’t worry about these things. Most children are not critical of other children who speak slightly strangely. And most children are not self-conscious about how they sound. I say this without reference to the CAL report which I am now going to read in detail so I can answer Paul.”

The CAL report, here above,  referred to a report from the American Center for Applied Linguistics, entitled Myths and misconceptions about second language learning. I commented on this report as follows;

I’m skeptical of the CAL because for quite a long time I participated in a listserv with members of that organization. They are very political and very protective of their traditional role as teachers in the classroom. To the CAL, learning can only take place in a classroom. To me the classroom is often the least important factor in learning a language. There are so many factors which affect success in language learning, and yet the majority of research is done based on what happens in a classroom.

The report quoted here, from CAL, is no exception. The report is designed to provide advice to teachers in classrooms. The report assumes that learning has to take place in a classroom, especially an ESL classroom. Below I comment on some quotes extracted from the report.

I have seen time and time again, children between the ages of six and nine who move to a new country and very quickly read with the local accent and communicate with their children friends without any difficulty. The challenge is to figure out how to empower adults to learn more the way children do, and yet retain the advantages that aduts have.

“Research comparing children to adults has consistently demonstrated that adolescents and adults perform better than young children under controlled conditions” … It is clear that the reference here is to classroom language learning.

“Teachers should not expect miraculous results from children learning English as a second language (ESL) in the classroom” … Perhaps but if the child has many friends who speak the local language, the child will learn, regardless of what happens in the classroom.

“Children are more likely to be shy and embarrassed around peers than are adults.” This is simply untrue. I have never seen this to be the case.

“For example, a study of British children learning French in a school context concluded that, after 5 years of exposure, older children were better L2 learners (Stern, Burstall, & Harley, 1975).” Perhaps in the inefficient environment of the language classroom, but that is not the whole story.

“Teachers should be aware that giving language minority children support in the home language is beneficial.”… This is a major political issue in the US where there are educators who favour teaching Spanish and English to Latino immigrants.

“Cummins (1980) cites evidence from a study of 1,210 immigrant children in Canada who required much longer (approximately 5 to 7 years) to master the disembedded cognitive language required for the regular English curriculum than to master oral communicative skills.”… In reality I believe this is more a factor of how much the children read in English and other factors outside the classroom.

“Educators need to be cautious in exiting children from programs where they have the support of their home language”… Here again CAL wants to keep immigrant children in the ESL classroom as long as they can. It is good for creating teacher jobs.

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7 August 2013

Speaking in a foreign language

How do we improve our ability to speak in a foreign language? We need to speak often and not worry about how we sound. But first we need to make sure we understand what people are saying. Here are a few tips from my own experience.

5 August 2013

Passive vocabulary and fluency

Vocabulary

Anthony Lauder, who has a channel at YouTube called FluentCzech, made an excellent presentation at the recent polyglot conference in Budapest. He started a thread about it at our forum on LingQ. This thread has meandered onto a variety of subjects, both relevant and irrelevant, and has now reached four pages in length.

The gist of the discussion revolves around the importance of a large vocabulary in order to achieve fluency in a language we are learning. It has always been my position that one’s vocabulary, and one’s passive vocabulary in particular, is the most important indicator of one’s potential to become fluent. A large passive vocabulary does not guarantee fluency, but it creates the conditions for fluency.

Fluency, to me, is the ability to express oneself comfortably in a variety of situations. This means the ability to comprehend what native speakers are saying in conversations on a wide range of subjects. If we cannot understand them, we cannot converse with them with any degree of comfort or confidence. Our passive vocabulary, therefore, has to be close to the active vocabulary of educated native speakers. Our own active vocabulary is necessarily smaller than our passive vocabulary and smaller than the active vocabulary of the native speaker. However, even with a more limited active vocabulary, we can still express ourselves on quite a variety of subjects.

A large passive vocabulary, acquired for example through massive listening and reading such as at LingQ, still needs to be activated if we are to become fluent. This can only be achieved through a lot of speaking and or writing, but mostly speaking. If we have a large passive vocabulary and good comprehension, our active vocabulary, and therefore our ability to express ourselves, will grow quite quickly.

This assumes, however, that we are prepared to force ourselves through the “sound barrier”, or should I call it the “stupidity barrier”. This is the lengthy period of time when we feel stupid because we cannot express ourselves as well as we would like. At times it feels as if we are not making progress. At times it feels as if we are slipping. But then suddenly we notice signals that in fact we have progressed, and have improved our fluency. This then becomes like fresh wind in our sails. We are now even more motivated to speak. Eventually we do achieve our goal of fluency, not perfection just fluency, if we stay the course.

3 August 2013

About learning Mandarin

Mandarin is difficult because of the need to learn so many Chinese characters, and the tones. However, there are aspects of Mandarin which make it easier then many European languages. The rewards of learning Mandarin, the process itself, and then the ability to connect with Chinese culture, are enormous. It is well worth the effort.

3 August 2013

学语言为什么那么困难?

多数人从来没有成功的学会另外一种语言。他们没有这个经验 也没有把握。怎么办呢?
你得相信学习过程, 而想办法享受学习过程, 要采取积极的态度, 花足够的时间,就会成功. 以后学另外一门外语就会容易得多.
有乐趣。

1 August 2013

Reading a grammar book is like reading a manual

grammar book

 

Reading a grammar book is like reading a manual. Grammar explanations are very hard to understand and absorb until we have enough experience with the language. As a person commented on a video I did a few years ago called “Krashen and Grammar“:

“This is consistent with James Paul Gee’s statement that textbooks are “manuals”, and we need to give people the “game” in which they can collect experience before the “manuals” make sense.”

Check out the video. It’s quite interesting, especially from 5:45 to 7:06.

When we try to learn to play a video game, or even try to use a camera we have just bought, it is difficult to start by reading the manual. At least in the case of the camera we have a rough idea of how cameras work. In the case of a video game, and I am just assuming this since I have never played a video game, we have very little knowledge about the details of the game. However, we naturally want to try to experiment using the camera, or playing the game, before we feel inclined to read the manual. What is more, without some familiarity with the game or the principles of the camera, the manual is relatively useless.

Languages strike me as being very similar to this. In fact, I find just jumping in by listening and reading in a language, using resources such as LingQ,to be much more enjoyable than trying to read the grammar book – in other words, the manual. Once I have some experience with a language, the explanations in the grammar book start to mean something. So as I have said before, my strategy is to get an overall sense of the language, a brief and incomplete overview, and then come back to revisit the grammar explanations later, when I feel like it. Most of my time, however, is spent listening or reading or speaking – in other words, playing the game or using the camera.

30 July 2013

The details of language learning

We are better off focusing our attention on the forest rather than the trees, the big picture rather than the nuts and bolts.