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Is your child growing up in a bilingual family?

If so, we have good news for you. First, everything will be alright; Second, we have lots of expert guidance on this matter. For instance, consider the following recent book by Jürgen Meisel:
Bilingual children: A guide for parents.

Jürgen Meisel is a distinguished scholar in the field of bilingualism with an extensive scholarly work on child bilingualism in Germany and Canada. He also has an additional commitment to making his expertise available to parents who are considering raising their children bilingual. After many years of running a web counseling service, writing for the general press and lecturing on the topic, this book distills his knowledge and long experience. Moreover, since Professor Meisel introduces some of the science that underlies our current understanding of bilingualism, this book should be interesting to anyone curious about what bilingualism is. Here are some of the questions that he addresses:

  • Is it possible for a child to acquire two languages simultaneously?
  • Will the child mix the languages and end up not speaking either language well?
  • Will it be alright if the child is exposed to three or more languages?

The answer to all these questions is yes – no – yes. It is reassuring – and empirically grounded.

Image by Markus Koljonen

Chicago Chapter Bilingualism Matters

Bilingualism Matters Chicago Chapter

Five Chicago-area universities, including the University of Illinois at Chicago (and Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola, and the University of Chicago), established a Chicago chapter of Bilingualism Matters.  The Chicago chapter, which held its launch on March 19th, will work together with scientists and linguists to provide data to support schools and communities navigate bilingualism. According to a statement from the official site, all branches exist in order to engage the public with the latest research about bilingualism and language learning, and con provide more information in different languages. The organization was originally established in 2008 at the University of Edinburgh, and works to study bilingualism in order to inform and share perspectives on bilingual education, language learning, and the bilingual experience.

Can you learn a new language in three weeks with Netflix?

With the rise of technology, there has also been a rise in methods and systems to learn languages, all promising fast and easy learning. One of the oldest and most well known options to learning a second language (or third or fourth) is Rosetta Stone. Having been around since 1992, the program’s approach is Dynamic Immersion, which introduces sights, sounds, words, and sentences in a way that is supposed to accelerate the learning program.

Then there are learning apps like Duo Lingo or Drops, which offer teaching through translating words and phrases, visual learning, and forced immersion, all on the learner’s own time. And, the newest option: Language Learning With Netflix (LLN), which provides subtitles in the original language and English in order to allow the watcher to experience a more immersive viewing.

But do any of these options work? And moreover, can they fully teach a new language in a limited amount of time? In short: no. In an article published by the BBC, two factors that contribute to the ease and speed are native tongue and the language that one is learning. Also noted is time dedicated to the task of learning. An hour of day can make a difference, but stronger immersion is needed to make for better learning. Recommended are reading and watching material in the target language, and participating in everyday activities in the target language.

One issue however, that does not make any of the programs or apps a one-size fits-all is that people have different learning styles. Some may benefit from memorization and pronunciation, some might favor visual learning/association, and even still, others might find it easier to learn through practical use and an immersive experience.

In the end, services like LLN, Duolingo, or Rosetta Stone may entice individual to start the process of learning a new language, but the benefits over other modes of language learning still need to be investigated. They can be a useful supplemental resource, but these services are not perfect tools to learn a new language, let alone learn a new language in three weeks.

Bilingualism Benefits Low-income Children

According to the Language magazine, a study was recently published by Pascale Engel de Abreu  and her colleagues from the University of Luxembourg which examined the effects of bilingualism on the functioning of low income children.

The study was done according to Engel de Abreu because low-income children are a vulnerable population, and studying cognitive processes in these children represents a significant advancement in the understanding of childhood development.

In their study, a total of 80 second grade students from low-income families participated. About half of the children were first or second generation immigrants to Luxembourg, who spoke both Luxembourgish and Portuguese. The other half of the children only spoke Portuguese and lived in Northern Portugal.

For this experiment both groups completed test in Portuguese and the bilingual children also completed the task in Luxembourgish in order to test their vocabulary skills. The researchers examined how the children represented knowledge in memory, using two different tasks to see how much visual information the children could keep in mind at a given time, according to the Language magazine.

According to Engel de Abreu, this is the first study of its kind to show that although minority bilingual children from low-income families face linguistic challenges, they also demonstrate important strengths in other cognitive domains.

The researchers also believe that these findings could help reduce the achievement gab between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Their findings, according to the Language magazine suggest that intervention programs that are based on second language teaching are good places to start for future research. Engel de Abreu ended by saying that foreign languages widen children’s linguistic and cultural horizons, and help foster healthy development of executive control and therefore should be pursued.


Bilingualism: How we turn on and off languages

A team of researchers has uncovered the distinct computations that occur when individuals switch between different languages, this finding is important because it could provide new insights into the nature of bilingualism.

Appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Esti Blanco-Elorrieta, a New York University doctoral candidate and lead author of this study explained that their study helps pinpoint what occurs in the brain during the language switching process.

Most importantly, this will help better understand the neural activity that is exclusively associated with disengaging from one language and then engaging with a different one.

Previous studies have suggested that while disengaging from one language requires some cognitive effort, activating a new language comes relatively cost-free from a neurobiological standpoint. However, it was unknown until this study, whether it was disengaging from the previous language or engaging in a new language that drove the language switch.

Researchers studied bilingual individuals fluent in English and American Sign Language (ASL), since they often produce both languages simultaneously.

The results showed that when bilinguals fluent in ASL and English switched languages, turning a language “off” led to increased activity in cognitive control areas while turning a language “on” was no different than not switching, according to the article.

Over all, these findings suggested that the difficulty of language-switching does not lie in engaging a new language, but instead is due to the disengagement from the previous language, says Blanco-Elorrieta.

Cognitive benefits of bilingualism might have been overstated

A new study done by Minna Lehtonen and her research group at the Department of Psychology at Åbo Akademi University shows that bilingualism does not seem to increase the cognitive skills related to executive functions in adult bilinguals.

According to Lehtonen, “Active use of two languages and switching between languages has been believed to train these functions, but our comprehensive overview of the entire existing research does not support this statement”.

Their study consisted of a meta-analysis of a total of 152 studies focusing on bilingual and monolingual adults. The participants were judged on their performance in tasks that measured different areas of executive functions.

Studies like this one had also been preformed in 27 other countries where bilingualism takes many forms. In all of these studies according to Lehtonen and her team, no significant benefits were found for bilinguals in sub-areas of executive functions.

Factors that were specifically looked at included age of acquisition of the second language, the age of participant, and the language pair. According to Lehtonen, the results indicate that bilingualism or active use of another language does not improve executive functions in healthy adults.

You are more likely to deny the truth in your second language

This article written by Manon Jones and Ceri Ellis tells us that the perception of truth is slippery when viewed through different languages and cultures. This occurs so much that someone who speaks two languages can accept a fact in one language, while denying it in the other.

According to the authors, bilingual people often report that they feel different while switching from one language to another. The change in language goes hand-in-hand with perceptual, cognitive and emotional trends. Research shows that language is linked to experiences and helps shape the way we process information.

Psychology experiments have also shown that languages shape aspects of our visual perception, the way we categorize objects in our environment, and even the way we perceive events. This is basically saying that our sense of reality is constructed by the confines of the language we speak, according to the authors.

In the research done by Jones and Ellis, bilinguals interpreted facts differently depending on the language they were presented with, and depending on whether the fact made them feel good or bad about their native culture. This is important because until recently it was assumed that one’s understanding of meaning was shared across all the languages one speaks.

Jones and Ellis asked Welsh-English bilinguals- who had spoken Welsh since birth and considered themselves culturally Welsh- to rate sentences as true or false. The sentences had either a positive or negative cultural connotation, and were factually either true or false. The participants were asked to read them in both English and Welsh, they were asked to categories each one, and were attached to electrodes to record the implicit interpretation of each sentence.

The researchers found that in Welsh participants tended to be less biased and more truthful, and therefore they often correctly identified some unpleasant statements as true. In English, their bias resulted in a surprising defensive reaction: they denied the truth of unpleasant statements, therefore they would categorize them as false even when they were true.

This research showed the way in which language interacts with emotions trigger asymmetric effects on the participants interpretations of facts. They found that while participants’ native language is closely tied to their emotions – which perhaps comes with greater honesty and vulnerability – their second language was associated with more distant, rational thinking. These findings were reassured through the brain activity measures- because functioning in the second language appeared to protect them against unpalatable truths, and deal with them more strategically.

See full article here:

Bilingualism could offset brain changes in Alzheimer’s

This Concordia University study focused specifically on the effects of knowing a second language for patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and mild cognitive impairment (MCI; at risk for AD).  Their study is innovative because previous studies had only focused on healthy young or healthy older adults.

According to Natalie Philips, a professor in the Department of Psychology, “having two languages exercises specific brain regions, can increase cortical thickness and grey matter density”.  The proof of this can be seen through the structural differences seen in the brains of multilingual AD and MCI patients.

This study was distinct from others because it was the first to use MRI data and sophisticated analysis techniques to measure cortical thickness and density of the tissues with specific brain areas. Phillips believes their study is the first to “assess the structure of MCI and AD patients language and cognition control regions,” as well as the first to make an association between those regions of the brain and memory function in these groups of people.

The results from Phillips study contribute to previous research that indicated speaking more than one language is one of many factors that contribute to cognitive reserve. The research supports the notion that multilingualism and its associated cognitive and sociocultural benefits are associated with brain plasticity, according to Phillips.

This study also suggests that multilingual people are able to compensate for AD-related tissue loss by accessing alternative networks of other brain regions for memory processing, stated by Phillips.

Click to access Duncan_et_al_2018.pdf

University of Ottawa study suggests Frenglais isn’t weakening French

Shana Poplack is a linguistic professor at the University of Ottawa who studied hundreds of Frenglais speakers to reach her conclusion; incorporating English into French language indeed has no negative impact on the language like most people in Canada had thought.

According to Poplack, research shows that many of the concerns people have about hybrid languages don’t hold up over the long term. In her study, she examined millions of words from speakers of Quebec French, as far back as 1846, and found that most of the borrowed ones simply disappear after their first mention.

According to Poplack, research has found that when English words do become part of the language they don’t permanently alter the fundamentals of the language. This means that when people borrow words, they ‘strip’ them of the grammatical properties that they come with.

In the case of French and English, “English words are treated just like any other French word, so mixing them has no effect on the grammatical core of the language,” according to Poplack. She said the reason she chose to study languages that blend together, specifically in Canada was because it is a bilingual country, where people speak French and English and they sometimes mix them. Poplack also said that she studies how people manage to mix the languages together and still maintain coherent sentences.

According to the article there are two basic ways in which bilinguals mix languages. The first is when the speaker is taking the word from the other language and incorporating it into the borrowing language. The other type of mixing is called code switching, which is basically an alternating between stretches of the two languages in use.

Poplack concluded by saying that the English being spoken in Frenglais is less that one per cent of all vocabulary being used. Therefore, the English words being used aren’t invading the language, in fact they are quite rare and are not bringing their grammatical properties with them.

Bilingualism May Aid Autistic Children

According to the author, Rick Nauert PhD, new research suggests that being bilingual may help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) shift tasks. This is important because it is a skill that is often difficult for children with autism.

This finding was also important, according to Canadian researchers, because it could suggest that being bilingual may offer cognitive advantages.

The senior author of the paper was Professor Aparna Nadig, from the School of communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University. This study also appeared in the journal Child Development.

According to Nadig, “Over the past 15 years there has been a significant debate in the field about whether there is a ‘bilingual advantage’ in terms of executive functions,”. Researchers have argued that living as a bilingual person and having to switch languages unconsciously to respond to the linguistic context in which the communication is taking place increases cognitive flexibility, according to Nadig.

The most exciting part of these findings is that no research before had clearly demonstrated the advantages of bilingualism that may also extend to children with autism spectrum.

In the study, the researchers arrived to their conclusions after comparing how easily 40 children between the ages of six and nine, with or without ASD, who were either monolingual or bilingual, were able to shift tasks in a computer-generated test. There were 10 children in each category. The children were asked to short a single object appearing on a computer screen by color, and were then asked to switch and sort the same object instead by their shape. The researchers found that bilingual children with ASD preformed significantly better in the more complex portion of the task-shifting test relative to children with ASD who were monolingual. However, researchers believe there needs to be more sound evidence before advising this to families, since families with ASD children are often advice to not expose their children to more than once language because it could worsen their language difficulties.

According to Nauert, despite the small sample size, the researchers believe that the “bilingual advantage” they saw in children with ASD has highly significant implications and should be studied further. The researchers plan to follow the children with ASD that were tested in the study for the next three to five years and see how they have developed. They want to see if the advantages they observed in the lab could also be observed in the daily life of the  bilingual children as they age.

See full article here: