Category Archives: Lab Thoughts

Being Bilingual Can Make You a Hero

Oscar Rodriguez,  11, talks to Gila River paramedics in his room at Maricopa Medical Center. Despite his injuries, the boy helped paramedics on the scene by translating for patients who didn't speak English. The paramedics were so appreciative of Oscar'sThis past Saturday an 11-year-old proved what most of us already knew: being bilingual can make you a hero.

Oscar Ramirez, a 4th grader from Las Vegas, was one of 16 people injured in a bus crash in Arizona last Friday.  The bus was on its way to Los Angeles from Zacatecas carrying 22 passengers, some of which did not speak English.

Ramirez helped the paramedics identify the injuries sustained by the other passengers, allowing them to be treated. The paramedics were so grateful that they brought him a few gifts, including a certificate honoring him as “Hero of the Day.”
For more information, check the Arizona Republic or the Associated Press.

Babies cry in their first language: Tränen, tears, o lágrimas?

In the newest edition of the journal Current Biology an interesting article was published about the language in which babies cry.

Apparently infants have already begun acquiring phonology at such an early stage that long before they can speak, they already cry in their native language.  In fact, the authors suggest that fetuses can “memorize auditory stimuli from the external world by the last trimester of pregnancy, with a particular sensitivity to melody contour in both music and language.”  It is not surprising then that their first sounds be somewhat language-specific.  French infants, for example, were found to prefer rising intonations in their cries and German infants preferred falling tones.  Further, the suggested effect is that “adult-like processing of pitch intervals allows newborns to appreciate musical melodies and emotional and linguistic prosody.”

“Newborns’ cry melody is shaped by their native language”. Birgit Mampe, Angela D. Friederici, Anne Christophe, Kathleen Wermke. Current Biology 2009, Nov 5, doi 10.1016/j.cub.2009.09.064

Other publications have begun taking notice as well.  The University of Würzburg has a discussion of the implications in German and English. And Uruguay’s LR21 has posted an article in Spanish.

Spanglish o Ingañol?

Generally, when we see discussion of English-Spanish code-switching, the discussion itself is often times in English.  Evidence of this can be seen in the colloquial name for this phenomenon:  Spanglish. 

Since code-switching is the meeting of two languages, there should obviously be two discussions–one in each language.  Check out this article from El Mundo, one of Spain’s newspapers, which discusses it from the Spanish language point of view.  At one point they even use a different name for it:  ingañol.

Childhood Bilingualism

In this month’s issue of Science, an article appeared from two researchers, Ágnes Melinda Kovács and Jacques Mehler, at the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati–SISSA in Trieste, Italy. They used an eye-tracking study involving speech patterns and toys which found that bilingual infants (12 months) could better distinguish between “two different regularities.” That is, when presented with two different speech patterns of nonce syllables, the bilingual children learned to associate the distinct patterns with the location of the toys. Thus, in the absence of the toys, the bilingual children were statistically more likely than monolingual children to look to the previous location of the toy associated with the pattern they hear. The monolingual children only learned the pattern for one of the locations.

What gives the bilingual infant the advantage? The researchers suggest that a bilingual infant can learn multiple structures simultaneously as a result of the mixed speech they’ve been exposed to. This mixed speech either allows the children to filter out interference possibly due to the development of what the researchers call the “precocious development of control and selection abilities” as documented in other sources.

To see the article and the documented sources:

Bilingualism Benefits, Part 2

Another interesting hit is this question and response in Google Answers.

The question was what were the benefits–in the lifestyle and job market–of being bilingual.  The responder is a very well-informed–to my knowledge anonymous–person who has posted a wealth of interesting links about everything from the statistics of employment and poverty levels of bilinguals to IQs and creativity.

Bilingualism Benefits, Part 1

If you google ‘bilingualism benefits’ you’ll find a number of interesting hits.  What’s particularly interesting is the way that research in the field is slowly but surely trickling out to the public.

Consider this article from 2004 by the APA about a study that appeared in Psychology and Aging:

(“Bilingualism, Aging, and Cognitive Control: Evidence From the Simon Task,” Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D., and Mythili Viswanathan, M.A., York University; Fergus I. M. Craik, Ph.D., Rotman Research Institute; Raymond Klein, Ph.D., Dalhousie University; Psychology and Aging, Vol. 19, No. 2.)

You can find the same article discussed in layman’s terms in the Washington Post in the same month in the same year.

In the Washington Post, the following quote appeared:

“The team, led by Ellen Bialystok at York University, hypothesized that the ability to hold two languages in the mind at the same time, without allowing words and grammar from one to slip into the other, might account for the greater control needed to perform well on the Simon task. An alternate hypothesis is that bilinguals have superior working memories for storing and processing information.”

The APA’s article, on the other hand, discusses “distractability” and says that bilingualism curbs the “age-related decline in the efficiency of inhibitory processing.”

Hopefully articles like the one in the Washington Post will help inform those who are in a position to affect language policy.  The challenge, then, will be continuing the dialogue.