Do You Hear What They Hear? Babies Are Listening Bilingually Even before They Can Speak

I remember having a conversation with an American raising his children in Taiwan. The father was fluent in Mandarin, and he’d started teaching that language to his son at a young age. He told me that it hadn’t worked for him and that he’d read that parents who speak more than one language to their small children only confuse them, as they aren’t able to tell one language from another.

It seemed like sound reasoning to me.

42052685_df923ad167So it surprised me to see new research showing that infants are better at becoming bilingual than I’d thought. As it turns out, by the age of seven months, babies can distinguish between languages by recognizing their different grammar structures.

The study, published in Nature Communications, focused on languages with opposite grammar patterns—such as English, which most often has the verb before the object, and Turkish, which follows the object-then-verb arrangement. Infants in bilingual environments pick up on these patterns and can distinguish between the languages, by listening to differences in pitch, duration, and word frequency.

Janet F. Werker, of the University of British Columbia, is co-author of the study, along with Judit Gervain, of the Université Paris Descartes. Werker reassures parents in bilingual households. “If you speak two languages at home, don’t be afraid, it’s not a zero-sum game,” she says. “Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways.”

Mental Cartography

Werker and Gervain’s research is one more step forward in what we know about infants and language learning. In 2001, Patricia Kuhl, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning, told the Smithsonian magazine that six-to-eight-month olds can already distinguish between different vowel and consonant sounds in the languages they hear everyday and in languages “foreign” to them. But by their first birthday, they can no longer differentiate between sounds that are not part of a language that they’ve been exposed to. This is because they have developed a focus on familiar sounds, while “tuning out” unfamiliar ones. Then, later on in life, when the familiar competes against the unfamiliar, say, when learning a new language, the old sounds will usually win out. The result is a non-native accent.

To register what sounds infants can differentiate, Kuhl used a “head-turn” study (similar to that used by Werker and Gervain). In one example, two-thirds of both American and Japanese six-month olds could hear the difference between “la” and “ra.” But by the one-year mark, 80% of American children responded to the difference, while only 59% of the Japanese children did. Since the latter rate is only 9 percentage points above chance, this showed that the Japanese children had joined their parents in no longer being able to distinguish between the two sounds.

According to Kuhl,

The baby early begins to draw a kind of map of the sounds he hears. That map continues to develop and strengthen as the sounds are repeated. The sounds not heard, the synapses not used, are bypassed and pruned from the brain’s network. Eventually the sounds and accent of the language become automatic. You don’t think about it, like walking. [Familiar sounds] become more and more embedded into the map, until eventually they are almost ineradicable.

This accent map gets harder and harder to change as time goes by. On the other hand, if a child is exposed to multiple languages early enough—while the map is being drawn—the child can create more than one map at once.

Kuhl also has found (as shown in the TED Talk below) that if this exposure to languages is to have an effect on an infant, it must come from a live person. Listening to audio, even with an accompanying video of the speaker, does no good.

It’s Never Too Early to Learn

According to DNAinfo New York, some parents in the Big Apple are even learning a new language themselves in order to make sure that exposure to multiple languages happens for their children at an early age.

Take, for instance, Rhonda Ross, of Harlem, who went to a boarding school in a French-speaking area of Switzerland when she was a student. Later, when her son, Raif, turned one, she began speaking to him only in French. “I started with a French babysitter,” she said, “but a friend convinced me I would have to speak French to my son myself if I really wanted him to be fluent.”

Not being fluent herself, that means that Ross has to keep learning as she teaches her son. But she feels that the effort is worth it. In fact, she is so pleased with the outcome, that she’s introduced Raif to Mandarin and Spanish, as well.

Linguist Jennifer Wilkin, of Brooklyn, is another advocate of early bilingual education. In 2001, she founded Science, Language & Arts, where parents and children can learn French and Mandarin. “There is certainly a trend among New Yorkers to give a language to their children,” said Wiklin, who “knows several parents who are learning, and speaking, Spanish, Japanese, French and German to their children.”

While Wilkin’s school has students from preschool through fifth grade, Lyndsey St. John started Baby French in a Brooklyn ice-cream parlor and candy shop named The Candy Rush. The class caters to children who haven’t even learned to talk yet. “It’s really good to start those [language] pathways forming at a very early age,” said Wilkins. “Anywhere from 8 months to 3 years is when children are really sponges. They’re picking up everything.”

(Judit Gervain and Janet F. Werker, “Prosody Cues Word Order in 7-Month-Old Bilingual Infants,” Nature Communications, February 14, 2013; “Bilingual Babies Know Their Grammar by Seven Months,” The University of British Columbia Public Affairs, February 14, 2013; Edwin Kiester, Jr., “Accents Are Forever,” Smithsonian, January 2001; Julie Norwell, “New York Parents Learn Foreign Languages to Help Kids Become Fluent,” DNAinfo New York, March 6, 2013; “Even before They Utter First Words, Brooklyn Babies Take French Lessons,” DNAinfo New York, August 22, 2012)

[photo: “Mommy Tells a Story,” by Dan LaVange, used under a Creative Commons license]

 

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If I Had a Hammer, I’d Still Need to Listen

Thanks to my daughter for showing me “It’s Not about the Nail.”

Point taken (all puns intended). It can be frustrating when someone—like a wife—won’t listen to common sense, ignoring a problem that’s as obvious as the nose on her face. She just wants someone to listen. No advice allowed.

Funny stuff. I feel this guy’s pain.

But wait a minute. Don’t I like to talk about the need for people to be heard, without having someone trying to fix everything? What about her pain? What gives?

Here’s what I’ve decided: Sometimes it is about the nail, but that doesn’t mean we should stop listening. Yes, some people, like this woman, won’t listen to reason. They don’t want to hear the truth or take responsibility, and they need to hear the truth clearly.

8559722063_d78cba51bc_tBut much of the time, our friends on the couch know the problem well and already have the solutions. Maybe they’re in the middle of fixing it but it’s taking time . . . or the fixes aren’t as quick as they should be . . . or the most obvious solutions would do more harm than good (anybody got a claw hammer?) . . . or there are other issues that make things more complicated. And in those cases, the person with the nail doesn’t need to be pummeled with advice, they need someone to hear about their hurts and fears.

There are a lot of people in the world who don’t want to listen to the truths that will solve their problems, but there are also a lot of people who don’t want to listen to the problems of others, so they use easy answers to try to make their own discomfort go away.

I know, I know. It’s just a comedy skit, and I shouldn’t try to make too much out of it. But I wanted to post the video, and I just couldn’t do that without tacking on my thoughts.

Oh, and one more thing. The writer and director for “It’s Not about the Nail” (he’s the male actor, too) is Jason Headley. Here’s another one of his videos. It’s called “A Little French.” (This will be the last of my comments about learning French for a while.) It doesn’t have millions of views like the one above, but it’s just as funny.

How can you not appreciate the thought process of a guy who can say, “I don’t want to learn French, I want to speak French”? If only. . . .

[photo: “Hammer,” by homespot hq, used under a Creative Commons license]

Language Study: Live (There) and Learn

3797213895_8586cd8e5e_nMan, I really should have studied French harder in college.

That’s how I ended my last post. Actually, I did study hard, got good grades in my three French classes, and was only three hours short of getting a French minor.

The reason I didn’t get the minor was that when I showed up for the first class of The History of the French Language, a 3-hour class taught in English, I realized I was in over my head. It was in the fall, after a summer full of not speaking French, and the girl in front of me asked Professor Honeycutt if he would teach the class in French. She asked this in French, and the girl next to her nodded in agreement. The teacher said he couldn’t do that, but I dropped the class the next day anyway.

It was one of the best decisions of my college career. I’m so glad that today I don’t have to tell people that I have a French minor but about the only thing I can still say is “I speak a little French.”

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t study hard enough. The problem was I didn’t need to use it outside of class. And inside of class, what I said didn’t matter as much as how I said it. You know what I mean: If your teacher asks you to tell about your pet, and you have a dog, but you’ve forgotten the word for dog, but you remember the word for cat, suddenly you have a cat. The professor isn’t asking you because he’s concerned about the animals in your life, he simply wants to see if you can put sentences together.

It’s not a silver bullet, but putting yourself in a place where you need to use a language in a meaningful way is key to learning a language. That’s one of the foundations of Education First, named the official supplier of language programs for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. EF was founded in 1965 by Bertil Hult in Sweden, “on the principle that cultural immersion was a superior way to study a language.”

Below are five EF commercials about people learning a language where it’s spoken. Granted, they glamorize the whole expat experience, but they are commercials, not documentaries.

I just wish that I could become fluent by watching cool videos about cool people living in cool places—and not have to worry about conjugating verbs.

The commercials are called “Live the Language.”

(By the way, who knew that speaking Australian and Canadian was so easy? Almost as easy as what they speak over in England).

(“About Us” and “EF in Brief,” Education First)

[photo: “cafe,” by  pim van boesschoten, used under a Creative Commons license]

Four Ways to Leverage Multi-Cultural Experiences to Raise Successful Kids

7778827430_2098f27ba3_nIn an increasingly globalized world, there are several ways to use multi-cultural experiences to help your children get a leg up as they move toward adulthood and future careers. Here are four of them.

None are easy, but the first may be the most difficult.

1. Be an Immigrant to the US

Sociologists at Johns Hopkins University, Lingxin Hao and Han S. Woo, found that children of immigrants in America achieve more academically and have better transitions into adulthood than their peers with native-born parents. The advantage is highest for foreign-born children whose parents move to the States, followed closely by American-born children of immigrants. Hao and Woo’s findings appear in the September/October 2012 issue of Child Development (“Distinct Trajectories in the Transition to Adulthood: Are Children of Immigrants Advantaged?“)

Explaining the difference,

Hao suggests that there is a greater sense of community among immigrants out of necessity—newcomers often need a lot of assistance when they first arrive in the United States. But Hao, who is from China, thinks there is also a great deal of inspiration to be found among the immigrant community: Parents might be working multiple low-level jobs and encourage their children to seek a better life for themselves. The success stories of immigrants who have “made it” are also held up as role models for immigrant children, something other native-born groups might be lacking, Hao said.

(“Children of Immigrants Are Coming Out Ahead of Their Peers, U.S. Study Finds,” ScienceDaily, September 13, 2012)

2. Don’t be a tiger parent

This one might go under the category of cultural lessons on what not to do.

Regardless of what Amy Chua writes in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, “Chinese-style” tiger parenting is not the best model for raising children. This is according to researchers Su Yeong Kim, Yijie Wang, Diana Orozco-Lapray, Yishan Shen, and Mohammed Murtuza. They compared the developmental outcomes of children from 444 Chinese-American families in northern California, using eight parenting dimensions—”parental warmth,” “democratic parenting,” “parental monitoring,” “inductive reasoning,” “parental hostility,” “psychological control,” “punitive parenting,” and “shaming”—to categorize four parenting styles. In order, from the style that produces the best developmental outcomes to the least, they are “supporting,” “easygoing,” “tiger,” and “harsh.”

From the abstract of “Does ‘Tiger parenting’ Exist? Parenting Profiles of Chinese Americans and Adolescent Developmental Outcomes” (published in Asian American Journal of Psychology, March 2013):

Compared with the supportive parenting profile, a tiger parenting profile was associated with lower GPA and educational attainment, as well as less of a sense of family obligation; it was also associated with more academic pressure, more depressive symptoms, and a greater sense of alienation. The current study suggests that, contrary to the common perception, tiger parenting is not the most typical parenting profile in Chinese American families, nor does it lead to optimal adjustment among Chinese American adolescents.

(Nate Kornell “Does Tiger Parenting Work?Psychology Today, December 14, 2012)

3. Make sure your children learn a foreign language

Bronwyn Fryer, a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, trumpets the need for “soft skills,” things like “emotional intelligence,” “listening,” and “authenticity,” for global leaders. But, he writes, the top soft skill for executives in global organizations is “sensitivity to culture,” also known as “cultural empathy.” According to Frye,

True cultural empathy springs from personality, early nurturing, curiosity, and appreciation of diversity. But, very importantly, it also springs from deep exposure to more than one language. And this is where American executives fall short.

Learning another language, he says, not only helps in communication, but opens up one’s thinking:

As anyone who has ever learned to speak a foreign language fluently notices how each language shifts one’s consciousness. One day, you wake up and you realize you have been dreaming in the new language. Eventually you realize you are thinking in that language. And when you shift back and forth between, say, your native tongue and the acquired language, you feel like you are driving a car with a stick-shift; you are more involved and engaged in the experience. You take in more; you hear more. And you literally feel different; you are “more than yourself.”

(Bronwyn Fryer, “Why America Lacks Global Leaders,” Harvard Business Review, August 23, 2012)

4. Encourage your children to add overseas work experience to their educations

This one comes a little later in their lives, but they’re always your kids, right?

In 2010, Susan Adams, of Forbes, gathered the views of several hiring experts on the value of work experience overseas. She writes that foreign postings, including the Peace Corps, internships, and other types of jobs, give an advantage to people looking for work. One of the reasons is that living and working overseas exposes people to differing leadership styles.

And some who move overseas find opportunities for long-term employment there. Adams talked with Mary Anne Walsh, a global-leaders coach based in New York, and learned that Walsh’s clients “who moved overseas shortly after college and graduate school . . . advanced much more quickly than if they had tried to climb the career ladder in the U.S.”

Others had this to say:

Dan Black, Americas director of recruiting for Ernst & Young—

We definitely see overseas experience as an advantage. Our clients are demanding more of us these days. They want diversity of thought and diversity of values, and many of our clients are multinationals.

Gary Baker, U.S. global mobility leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers—

[Being part of a minority group in another country]  gives you a greater respect for other cultures, and you learn to be better at managing teams that are diverse.

Not only does working overseas build character, writes Adams, but being successful in a foreign country also increases one’s confidence. “If you can make your way in Mexico City, Abuja or Sao Paulo, then traditional U.S. organizational issues will be a snap for you.”

(Susan Adams, “How a Job Abroad Can Give Your Career a Big Boost,” Forbes, November 4, 2010)

[photo: “Awaiting Riders,” by dolanh, used under a Creative Commons license]

Language Apps Beat Flat Abs

Want to become more attractive to the opposite sex? Learn another language. A poll from car-maker smart USA and Harris Interactive shows that 69% of Americans “would prefer their spouse to speak another language than have washboard abs.” And if you’re looking for some high-tech help in becoming bilingual, Wired How-To Wiki provides a list of apps for foreign-language learning, broken down into four sections. (If you want to go for a second language and a flat stomach, I suggest number three, because you’ll be pretty busy at the gym.):

  1. For story-based learners
  2. For visual learners
  3. For the time-strapped
  4. Basic translators

(“Americans’ Attitude towards Consumption May Be Shifting,” BusinessNewsDaily, February 28, 2012; Adrienne So, “Use Apps to Learn a Foreign Language,” Wired How-To Wiki, April 18, 2012)

[photo: “Gym wash,” by Michael Clark, used under a Creative Commons license]

On Second Thought: Your Second-Language Decisions May Be Better

If you learn a second language, there’s evidence that thinking in that language leads to better decisions. Citing research from the University of Chicago, Tom Jacobs reports in Pacific Standard that “using one’s second language reduces or eliminates certain biases that otherwise infiltrate our decision-making.”

In the abstract to their article in Psychological Science, the researchers state that one would assume

that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language.

It seems that decisions made in a second, and therefore less familiar, language are more rational, depending less on emotional responses. One of the researchers’ experiments dealt with a game in which participants were presented with a choice to either keep a dollar or to bet it on a coin toss, given certain factors. The statistically wise move would be to take the bet, but those using their first language were less likely to bet the money. On the other hand, those who heard the presentation in their second language were more likely to make the bet. In other words, the first group listened to their ingrained, less-rational fears, while the second group thought through the situation more clearly.

So how would this affect everyday life? “People who routinely make decisions in a foreign language rather than their native tongue might be less biased in their savings, investment, and retirement decisions,” say the researchers. Hmmm. No word on how this would affect our decisions while visiting a foreign casino.

Addendum: While I was looking at the page in Psychological Science, I saw a link to the abstract of “Losing Access to the Native Language while Immersed in a Second Language: Evidence for the Role of Inhibition in Second-Language Learning” (Jared A. Linck, Judith F. Kroll, and Gretchen Sunderman). From what I can tell, the gist of the study verifies that immersion learning is more effective than classroom learning, and that this is in part because immersion learning serves to inhibit the use of one’s native language. That’s somewhat interesting, but that’s not what caught my attention. The opening sentence is what grabbed me: “Adults are notoriously poor second-language learners.” Now that doesn’t pull any punches. I wish I could have had that printed on a t-shirt to wear when I started learning Mandarin at the age of 37.

(Tom Jacobs, “Second Language Translates into Clearer Thinking,” Pacific Standard, April 24, 2012; Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, and Sun Gyu An, abstract of “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases,” Psychological Science, July 21, 2011)

[photo: “think hard,” by Mutiara Karina, used under a Creative Commons license]

Bilingualism for Babies and Grandparents

Here’s some background information for my post “Bilingual Brain Boost.” A couple related articles at The Hot Word  point to research on how bilingualism affects infant intelligence and how knowing two languages may delay the onset of dementia:

[photo: “Grammy & Natalie,” by donireewalker, used under a Creative Commons license]