Language development

No advantage for bilingual children in executive function

  • A new study adds to recent research challenging the idea that bilingualism benefits children's executive function.

The idea that bilingual children have superior executive function compared to monolingual children has been challenged in recent research. Executive function controls your attention, and helps with such tasks as remembering instructions, controlling responses, and shifting swiftly between tasks. It is positively correlated with children's academic achievement.

However, executive function is a complex construct, with several different components. It has been suggested that inconsistent research findings as to the advantage of bilingualism may be related to differences in how executive function is measured and conceptualized.

A new German study hopes to have dealt with this issues through its methodology and analysis.

The study compared 242 children (aged 5-15) who spoke both Turkish and German, and 95 children who spoke only German. The children’s executive function was tested using a computerized task called Hearts and Flowers, that required the child to press a different key in response to stimuli on the screen, depending on the condition. The congruent condition matched the key to the location of the heart stimulus; the incongruent condition required the child to press the key on the opposite side to where the flower stimulus appeared; the mixed condition tested the ability of the child to use the correct rule depending on which stimulus appeared.

The study found no significant differences in executive function between the two groups, after taking into account maternal education, child gender, age, and working memory (digit span backwards).

The researchers also took into account children's German and Turkish vocabulary size and exposure to both languages, factors for which previous studies on the topic had been criticized for lacking.

Paper available at



Jaekel N, Jaekel J, Willard J, Leyendecker B (2019) No evidence for effects of Turkish immigrant children‘s bilingualism on executive functions. PLoS ONE 14(1): e0209981.




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Critical period for learning language longer than thought

  • A large internet study has concluded that language-learning ability remains strong until about 17-18, however, to achieve native proficiency, you should start before age 10.

It’s long been speculated that there’s a critical period for learning a new language, but the specifics are a matter of debate. It is difficult to follow a sufficient number of language learners through their years of learning. But a new study has got over that difficulty by using the ability of Facebook to get vast numbers of people, who represent many stages of learning.

The study involved a 10-minute quiz on English grammar, after which users were asked to reveal their current age and the age at which they began learning English, as well as other information about their language background. Complete data was received from 669,498 people (both native and non-native English speakers).

Testing a number of computational models to see which was most consistent with the results, the researchers concluded that grammar-learning ability remains strong until age 17 or 18, at which point it drops. This is a much longer period than previously thought.

However, the study also found that it is nearly impossible for people to achieve proficiency similar to that of a native speaker unless they start learning a language by the age of 10. There wasn’t much difference between those who started learning the language at birth and those who began at 10, but if you start learning after 10, you don’t have a long enough time before reaching 18, to achieve the proficiency of native speakers.

It’s not clear, however, that these differences necessarily have to do with physiology. It still may be social or cultural, given that people’s lives customarily change at that age. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of how much time and effort you are able to devote.

The quiz was designed to be entertaining enough to go viral (in which it succeeded!), and included questions that used grammatical rules most likely to trip up a non-native speaker, as well as questions designed to reveal which dialect of English the test-taker speaks (acceptable grammar can vary by dialect).

Do note that this is only about learning to the standard of a native speaker! It emphatically does not mean that you can’t learn a language as an adult!




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Picture overload hurts preschooler's word learning

  • A study has found that having more than one illustration results in poorer word learning among pre-schoolers — but this can be mitigated if the reader draws the pre-schooler’s attention to each illustration.

When you're reading a picture book to a very young child, it's easy to think it's obvious what picture, or part of a picture, is being talked about. But you know what all the words mean. It's not so easy when some of the words are new to you, and the open pages have more than one picture. A recent study has looked at the effect on word learning of having one vs two illustrations on a 2-page open spread.

The study, in two experiments, involved the child being read to from a 10-page storybook, which included two novel objects, mentioned four times, but only incidentally. In the first experiment, 36 preschoolers (average age 3.5 years) were randomly assigned to one of three conditions:

  • one illustration (the illustration filled the page, with the text written as part of the illustration, and the opposing page blank)
  • two illustrations (each illustration filled its page, on opposing pages)
  • one large illustration (the page was twice the size of that found in the other conditions) — this was the control condition.

Children who were read stories with only one illustration at a time learned twice as many words as children who were read stories with two or more illustrations. There was no difference in reading time, or in the child’s enjoyment of the story.

In a follow-up experiment, 12 preschoolers were shown the two-illustration books only, but this time the reader used a simple hand swipe gesture to indicate the correct illustration before the page was read to them. With this help, the children learned best of all.

In fact, the rate of word learning in this last condition was comparable to that observed in other studies using techniques such as pointing or asking questions. Asking questions is decidedly better than simply reading without comment, and yet this simple gesture was enough to match that level of learning.

Other studies have shown that various distractions added to picture books, like flaps to lift, reduce learning. All this is best understood in terms of cognitive load. The most interesting thing about this study is that it took so little to ameliorate the extra load imposed by the two illustrations.

Also see for a blog post by one of the researchers




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Music training in adolescence improves auditory & language skills

We've seen a number of studies showing the value of music training for children's development of language skills. A new study has investigated what happens if the training doesn't begin until high school.

The study involved 40 Chicago-area high school students who were followed from their beginning at high school until their senior year. Nearly half the students had enrolled in band classes, which involved two to three hours a week of instrumental group music instruction in school. The rest had enrolled in junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), which emphasized fitness exercises during a comparable period.

The music group showed more rapid maturation in the brain's response to sound, and demonstrated prolonged heightened brain sensitivity to sound details. While all students improved in language skills tied to sound-structure awareness, the improvement was greater for those in music classes.

The finding is encouraging in that it shows that adolescent brains are still receptive to music training.

It's also encouraging in involving students from low-income areas. Children from families of lower socioeconomic status have been found to process sound less efficiently, in part because of noisier environments and also due to linguistic deprivation. A previous small study by the same researchers looked at the benefits of a free community music program for a group of disadvantaged students (the Harmony Project). In this small study, students more engaged in the program (as assessed by attendance and participation) showed greater improvement after two years, in how their brains processed speech and in their reading scores. Those who learned to play instruments also showed greater improvement than those who participated in music appreciation classes.




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Language development

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Children under 3 need adult help to learn action words from TV

Three studies of 96 children aged 30–42 months have explored their ability to learn from educational television. The studies looked specifically at the learning of verbs, since these are generally harder for children to learn than names of objects. The children saw characters performing unfamiliar actions that were labeled with invented words. It was found that children under age 3 could not learn the words directly from the program, without an adult providing help. Children over 3, however, could learn the verbs directly from the video program, without adult assistance. The findings are a warning about the benefits of educational videos for infants and toddlers.

Roseberry, S. et al. 2009. Live Action: Can Young Children Learn Verbs From Video? Child Development, 80 (5), 1360-1375.

Babies' language learning starts from the womb

Analysis of the cries of 60 healthy newborns (three to five days old), 30 born into French-speaking families and 30 born into German-speaking families, has revealed clear differences in the shape of the melodies, based on their mother tongue. Consistent with characteristic differences between the two languages, French newborns tend to cry with a rising melody contour, whereas German newborns seem to prefer a falling melody contour in their crying. It’s speculated that melody contour may be the only aspect of their mother's speech that newborns are able to imitate. Earlier studies have shown that human fetuses are able to memorize sounds from the external world by the last trimester of pregnancy, with a particular sensitivity to melody contour in both music and language. The finding is consistent with the idea that cry melody is the beginning of language development.

Mampe, B. et al. 2009. Newborns' Cry Melody Is Shaped by Their Native Language. Current Biology, Published online 05 November 2009.

Interestingly, another recent study reported that five-month-old infants matched speech, but not human nonspeech vocalizations, specifically to humans, and monkey calls to monkey faces, but not duck vocalizations to duck faces, even though infants likely have more experience with ducks than monkeys.

Vouloumanos, A. et al. 2009. Five-month-old infants' identification of the sources of vocalizations. PNAS 106 ( 44), 18867-18872.

The effect of gamma waves on cognitive and language skills in children

Gamma waves are fast, high-frequency brainwaves that spike when higher cognitive processes are engaged. Research suggests that lower levels of gamma power might hinder the brain's ability to bind thoughts together. In the first study of the "resting" gamma power in the frontal cortex in young children (16, 24 and 36 months old), it’s been revealed that those with higher language and cognitive abilities had correspondingly higher gamma power than those with poorer language and cognitive scores. Children with better attention and inhibitory control also had higher gamma power. There were no differences in gamma power based on gender or socio-economic status, but children with a family history of language impairments showed lower levels of gamma activity. The finding may enable more accurate pinpointing of a child’s development, enabling earlier, and better targeted, intervention.

Benasich, A.A. et al. 2008. Early cognitive and language skills are linked to resting frontal gamma power across the first 3 years. Behavioral Brain Research, 195 (2), 215-222.

Kids learn more when mother is listening

Research has already shown that children learn well when they explain things to their mother or a peer, but that could be because they’re getting feedback and help. Now a new study has asked 4- and 5-year-olds to explain their solution to a problem to their moms (with the mothers listening silently), to themselves or to simply repeat the answer out loud. Explaining to themselves or to their moms improved the children's ability to solve similar problems, and explaining the answer to their moms helped them solve more difficult problems — presumably because explaining to mom made a difference in the quality of the child's explanations.

Rittle-Johnson, B., Saylor, M. & Swygert, K.E. 2008. Learning from explaining: Does it matter if mom is listening? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, In press.

Connection between language and movement

A study of all three groups of birds with vocal learning abilities – songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds – has revealed that the brain structures for singing and learning to sing are embedded in areas controlling movement, and areas in charge of movement share many functional similarities with the brain areas for singing. This suggests that the brain pathways used for vocal learning evolved out of the brain pathways used for motor control. Human brain structures for speech also lie adjacent to, and even within, areas that control movement. The findings may explain why humans talk with our hands and voice, and could open up new approaches to understanding speech disorders in humans. They are also consistent with the hypothesis that spoken language was preceded by gestural language, or communication based on movements. Support comes from another very recent study finding that mice engineered to have a mutation to the gene FOXP2 (known to cause problems with controlling the formation of words in humans) had trouble running on a treadmill.

Relatedly, a study of young children found that 5-year-olds do better on motor tasks when they talk to themselves out loud (either spontaneously or when told to do so by an adult) than when they are silent. The study also showed that children with behavioral problems (such as ADHD) tend to talk to themselves more often than children without signs of behavior problems. The findings suggest that teachers should be more tolerant of this kind of private speech.

Feenders, G. et al. 2008. Molecular Mapping of Movement-Associated Areas in the Avian Brain: A Motor Theory for Vocal Learning Origin. PLoS ONE, 3(3), e1768.

Winsler, A., Manfra, L. & Diaz, R.M. 2007. “Should I let them talk?”: Private speech and task performance among preschool children with and without behavior problems. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 22(2), 215-231.

Different educational approaches appropriate for boys and girls?

An imaging study of some 50 children aged 9 to 15 revealed that girls showed significantly greater activation of the language areas of the brain when doing a language task than did boys. The boys showed greater activation of the specific sensory brain areas--visual or auditory--required by the task. This pattern suggests that girls rely on a supramodal language network, whereas boys process visual and auditory words differently. This difference may reflect the fact that males take longer to mature than females, rather than a lifelong gender difference, but it does have implications for education.

Burman, D.D., Bitan, T. & Booth, J.R. 2008. Sex differences in neural processing of language among children. Neuropsychologia, In Press, Corrected Proof, Available online 4 January 2008

Why do children experience a vocabulary explosion at 18 months of age?

At about 18 months children experience a vocabulary explosion, suddenly learning words at a much faster rate. A new study using computer simulations suggests that the reason for this has little to do with brain maturity or cognitive development but is the result of several simple factors: the repetition of words over time, the fact that children learn many words at the same time, and the fact that words vary in difficulty. This factor, that children must be learning a greater number of difficult or moderate words than easy words, is crucial.

McMurray, B. 2007. Defusing the Childhood Vocabulary Explosion. Science, 317 (5838), 631.

Baby DVDs may hinder, not help, infants' language development

Random telephone interviews with more than 1,000 families found that for every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants eight to 16 months of age understood an average of six to eight fewer words than infants who did not watch them. Baby DVDs and videos had no positive or negative effect on the vocabularies on toddlers 17 to 24 months of age. Daily reading and storytelling by parents were, however, associated with slight increases in language skills. The researchers believe the content of baby DVDs and videos is different from the other types of programming because it tends to have little dialogue, short scenes, disconnected pictures and shows linguistically indescribable images.

Zimmerman, F.J., Christakis, D.A. & Meltzoff, A.N. 2007. Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years. Journal of Pediatrics, 151 (4), 364-368.

Kids learn words best by working out meaning

An undergraduate project involving 100 children aged 3 to 3 ½, provides evidence that children learn words better when they figure out the words' meaning for themselves, rather than when they are simply told their meaning.

Fathers influence child language development more than mothers

A study of parents’ contribution to children’s language skills found that, in families with two working parents, fathers had greater impact than mothers on their children's language development between ages 2 and 3. Observations of the language interactions between parents and child revealed that 2-year-old children whose fathers used more diverse vocabularies had greater language development when they were tested one year later, but the mothers' vocabulary did not significantly affect a child's language skills. The study also found that high-quality child care during the first three years of life was associated with higher scores at age 3 on a test of expressive language development, but this was less important than family language.

Pancsofar, N. & Vernon-Feagans, L. 2006. Mother and father language input to young children: Contributions to later language development. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27 (6), 571-587.

Skills related to early language learning

A study of more than 120 children aged 21 months — a peak time for language learning — has found a link between language learning and several motor and cognitive skills. Children who were poor at moving their mouths (for example not being able to lick their lips, or blow bubbles) were particularly weak at language skills, while those who were good at these movements had a range of language abilities. Children who were good at pretending that one object is another, such as using a block for a car, or a box for a doll's bed, or giving a doll a tea party, were also better at language, but there was no relationship with more general thinking skills, such as doing puzzles. Children who could say new words an adult asked them to repeat, were best at language. Being able to listen to a new word or a funny sound and work out which picture it went with also distinguished between children with advanced and not so strong abilities.

Alcock, K. 2006. The Vocabulary Burst and Individual Differences. Study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Early gaze-following associated with early language

The ability to detect the direction of another's glance has been recognized as a crucial component of human social interaction for some time. New research now reveals that babies start to follow the movement of another person’s head at around 9 months, and by 10-11 months they follow the head and eyes. Sometimes they will make sounds as they follow the gaze. Those who simultaneously followed the eyes of the researcher and made vocalizations when they were 10 or 11 months old understood an average of 337 words at 18 months old while the other babies understood an average of only 195 words.

Brooks, R. & Meltzoff, A.N. 2005. The development of gaze following and its relation to language. Developmental Science, 8(6), 535.

Too much knowledge can be bad for some types of memory

Following on from an earlier study reported last year, in which children were found to have better memories than adults in certain circumstances, researchers have found that adults did better remembering pictures of imaginary animals than they did remembering pictures of real cats. The reason has to do with the effects of categorization. While categorization is often vital, it can lead people to ignore individual details. The trick is to know when it’s important to categorize and when it’s better to note specific details. The new study added to the earlier findings by showing that there is a gradual decrease in recognition memory from children to adults, rather than an abrupt change in the way people see the world. Moreover, the difference in how adults and children perceive and remember objects is not a developmental difference, but one caused by differences in knowledge. Adults performed like children when shown imaginary animals.

Fisher, A.V. & Sloutsky, V.M. 2005. When Induction Meets Memory: Evidence for Gradual Transition From Similarity-Based to Category-Based Induction. Child Development, 76(3), 583.

Language cues help visual learning in children

A study of 4-year-old children has found that language, in the form of specific kinds of sentences spoken aloud, helped them remember mirror image visual patterns. The children were shown cards bearing red and green vertical, horizontal and diagonal patterns that were mirror images of one another. When asked to choose the card that matched the one previously seen, the children tended to mistake the original card for its mirror image, showing how difficult it was for them to remember both color and location. However, if they were told, when viewing the original card, a mnemonic cue such as ‘The red part is on the left’, they performed “reliably better”.

The paper was presented by a graduate student at the 17th annual meeting of the American Psychological Society, held May 26-29 in Los Angeles.

Baby talk helps infants learn to speak

Most adults speak to infants using so-called infant-directed speech: short, simple sentences coupled with higher pitch and exaggerated intonation. Researchers have long known that babies prefer to be spoken to in this manner. A new study of 8-month-old infants reveals that infant-directed speech also helps infants learn words more quickly than normal adult speech. Thiessen's study may also explain why many adults struggle to learn a second language.

The study was published in the March issue of Infancy.

Children process words by sound while adults process by meaning

A study into the question of how false memories are formed has found evidence of an age-related, developmental shift in language, suggesting that younger children process words primarily on the basis of phonology, or sound, while older children and adults process words primarily on the basis of semantics, or meaning.

Dewhurst, S. & Robinson, C. 2004. False Memories in Children: Evidence for a Shift from Phonological to Semantic Associations. Psychological Science, 15 (11), 782-6.

Children outperform adults in memory study

An example of the perils of knowing too much! — under specific conditions, young children can beat most adults on a recognition memory test. The study compared young children (average age 5 years) with college students. Without being told what was being tested, participants were shown pictures of cats, bears and birds. Some of them were first shown a picture of a cat, and told that it had “beta cells inside its body”. They were then shown other pictures, and asked whether these animals also had beta cells. After this, they were shown other pictures, and asked whether they had been shown them before. The children were accurate on average 31% of the time; the college students only 7% of the time. The researchers suggested the reason was because the children used similarity-based induction: when asked whether each pictured animal had "beta cells", they looked carefully to see if the animal looked similar to the original cat. On the other hand, the adults used category-based induction: once they determined whether the animal pictured was a cat or not, they paid no more attention. Thus, when they were tested later, the adults didn't know the pictures as well as the children. A subsequent study taught the children to use category-based induction. Their performance then dropped to the level of the adults. Another study in which participants were simply shown the pictures of the 30 animals and told to remember them for a recognition test, found adults were accurate 42% of the time, compared to only 27% for the children.

Sloutsky, V.M. & Fisher, A.V. 2004. When Development and Learning Decrease Memory: Evidence Against Category-Based Induction in Children. Psychological Science, 15 (8), 553-558.

Language learning declines after second year of life

A study involving 96 deaf children who had received cochlear implants during their first four years of life has found that the rate of language learning was greatest for those given implants before they turned two. Children given implants at three or four years of age acquired language skills more slowly. The finding supports the idea that there is a 'sensitive period' for language learning, and suggests that deaf children should get cochlear implants sooner (it is still relatively rare for them to be given to children younger than two).

The findings were presented on 16 May at the Acoustical Society of America conference in Vancouver, Canada.

Childhood "amnesia" linked to vocabulary

"Childhood amnesia" is the term given to the well-known phenomenon of our almost complete lack of memory for the experiences of our very early childhood. Exactly why it occurs is long been a subject of debate. New research suggests the answer may lie in the very limited vocabulary of very young children. A study of 2- and 3-year-old children found that children can only describe memories of events using words they knew when the experience occurred. When asked about the experimental situation (involving a "magic shrinking machine") a year later, the children easily remembered how to operate the device, but were only able to describe the machine in words they knew when they first learned how to operate it.

Simcock, G. & Hayne, H. 2002. Breaking the Barrier? Children Fail to Translate Their Preverbal Memories Into Language. Psychological Science, 13 (3), 225-231.

Children's brains process words differently

An imaging study looked at brain activity in 19 children (7 - 10 years old) while saying a word in response to a written word. These images were compared with those from 22 adults (average of 25 years old). The study highlighted two brain regions in particular - regions in the left frontal and left extrastriate cortex that are known to be critical in language processing and thought to undergo substantial development between childhood and adulthood. Six subregions within these areas were identified, and two of these revealed differences in brain activity between the children and the adults.There was less activation in a left frontal region and greater activation in posterior left extrastriate cortex in children than in adults. It may be that the left frontal region is immature in children, leading to an alternative strategy that produces more activation in extrastriate regions. Or it may be that more experience is needed before the processing resources of this region can be used.

Schlaggar, B.L., Brown, T.T., Lugar, H.M., Visscher, K.M., Miezin, F.M., Petersen, S.E. 2002. Functional neuroanatomical differences between adults and school-age children in the processing of single words. Science, 296, 1476-9.

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Sense of rhythm linked to language skills

A study involving 124 teenagers has found that those who were most accurate at tapping along with a metronome also showed the most consistent brain responses to a synthesized speech sound "da". The finding is consistent with previous research showing links between reading ability and beat-keeping ability, and between reading ability and the consistency of the brain's response to sound. The finding also provides more support for the benefits of music training for both language skills and auditory processing.



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New hope for autistic children who never learn to speak

A recent report from Autistica estimates that nearly a quarter (24%) of children with autism are non-verbal or minimally verbal — problems that can persist into adulthood.

A review of over 200 published papers and more than 60 different intervention studies has now concluded that:



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Gender differences in level of the ‘language protein’

A rat study has found that infant males have more of the Foxp2 protein (associated with language development) than females and that males also made significantly more distress calls than females. Increasing the protein level in females and reducing it in males reversed the gender differences in alarm calls.

A small pilot study with humans found that 4-year-old girls had more of the protein than boys. In both cases, it is the more communicative gender that has the higher level of Foxp2.



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Children learn iconic signs more easily and quickly

December, 2012

A study of deaf toddlers suggests that we can support children’s acquisition of language by providing physical links to words, through the use of gestures, facial expressions, and tone.

The relative ease with which children acquire language has produced much debate and theory, mirroring the similar quantity of debate and theory over how we evolved language. One theory of language evolution is that it began with gesture. A recent study looking at how deaf children learn sign language might perhaps be taken as partial support for this theory, and may also have wider implications for how children acquire language and how we can best support them.

The study, involving 31 deaf toddlers, looked at 89 specific signs understood and produced by the children. It was found that both younger (11-20 months) and older (21-30 months) toddlers understood and produced more signs that were iconic than signs that were less iconic. This benefit seemed to be greater for the older toddlers, supporting the idea that a certain amount of experience and/or cognitive development is needed to make the link between action and meaning.

Surprisingly, the benefits of iconicity did not seem to depend on how familiar, phonologically complex, or imageable the words were.

In contrast to spoken language, a high proportion of signs are iconic, that is, related to the concept being expressed (such as, bringing the hand to the mouth to indicate ‘eat’). Nevertheless, if iconicity is important in sign language, it is surely also important in spoken languages. This is supported by the role of gesture in speech.

The researchers suggest that iconic links between our perceptual-motor experience of the world and the form of a sign may provide an imitation-based mechanism that supports early sign acquisition, and that this might also apply to spoken language — with gestures, tone of voice, inflection, and facial expression helping make the link between words and their meanings less arbitrary.

This suggests that we can support children’s acquisition of language by providing and emphasizing such ‘scaffolding’.




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Learning another language

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Literate Arabic speakers have bilingual brains

Research has found that Arabic-speaking students tend to be less proficient in reading than other students are in their native language. Spoken Arabic comes in a variety of dialects and is quite different from the common written Arabic (Modern Standard Arabic - MSA). A new imaging study has now compared brain activity in a priming task among trilinguals fluent in MSA, spoken Arabic and Hebrew. The results revealed that the cognitive process in using MSA was more similar to that employed for Hebrew, and less similar to the cognitive process of using the spoken native language. These results not only help explain why learning to read is more difficult for Arabic speakers, but also suggests that the most effective way of teaching written Arabic is by using techniques usually employed for the instruction of a second language — including exposing children to written Arabic in preschool or kindergarten.

Ibrahim, R. 2009. The cognitive basis of diglossia in Arabic: Evidence from a repetition priming study within and between languages. Journal of Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 2.

Relearning a forgotten language is easier for those under 40

A small study involving 7 native English speakers who had learned either Hindi or Zulu as children when living abroad, but now had no memory of the neglected language, found that the three who were under 40 could relearn certain phonemes that are difficult for native English speakers to recognize, but those over 40, like those who had never been exposed to the language in childhood, could not. The amount of experience of exposure in childhood ranged from 4 to 10 years, and it’s especially notable that the 47-year old individual who had 10 years exposure, having become almost fluent, still could not recover the ability to distinguish these difficult sounds. It should also be noted that where the ability was recovered (and recovered almost to native ability), it took about 15-20 training sessions. The findings point to the value of early foreign language learning.

[975] Bowers, J. S., Mattys S. L., & Gage S. H.
(2009).  Preserved implicit knowledge of a forgotten childhood language.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 20(9), 1064 - 1069.

Exposure to two languages carries far-reaching benefits

A new study provides evidence that bilingual speakers find it easier to learn a new language than those who only know one language. The study compared the ability of three groups of native English speakers - English-Mandarin bilinguals, English-Spanish bilinguals and monolinguals - to master words in an invented language that bore no relationship to English, Spanish or Mandarin. The bilingual participants mastered nearly twice the number of words as the monolinguals. The finding adds more support to the value of introducing another language to children at a young age.

[235] Kaushanskaya, M., & Marian V.
(2009).  The bilingual advantage in novel word learning.
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 16(4), 705 - 710.

Bilingual babies get a head start on executive functioning

A number of studies have pointed to benefits of being bilingual, but many people still believe that the experience of two languages in infancy may cause confusion and impair their acquisition of language. Now a new study shows that bilingual babies quickly adapt to different learning cues at seven months old compared with babies from single-language households. The study involved families in the Trieste area of Italy, where parents spoke to infants from birth using both Italian and Slovenian mother tongues. When bilingual and monolingual babies were first taught to look at one side of a screen in response to a sound cue (and in anticipation of a visual "reward" image of a puppet), then required to switch sides, it was found that bilingual babies quickly learned to look at the other side, but the monolingual babies never adapted to the change. The findings indicate that bilingualism gives an advantage above the purely linguistic, in executive function, which is consistent with other research indicating bilingual children have improved attention.

[1110] Kovacs, A. M., & Mehler J.
(2009).  Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106(16), 6556 - 6560.

Anatomical advantage for second language learners

Based on the size of a small brain region called Heschl's Gyrus (HG) in the left hemisphere, researchers found they could predict who would be more successful in learning 18 words in an invented language (those predicted to be "more successful learners" achieved an average of 97% accuracy in identifying the pseudo words, compared to 63% from those deemed "less successful"). The size of the right HG was not important. The finding was surprising, given that this area, the primary region of the auditory cortex, is typically associated with handling the basic building blocks of sound — whether the pitch of a sound is going up or down, where sounds come from, and how loud a sound is — rather than speech per se.

[1147] Wong, P. C. M., Warrier C. M., Penhune V. B., Roy A. K., Sadehh A., Parrish T. B., et al.
(2008).  Volume of Left Heschl's Gyrus and Linguistic Pitch Learning.
Cereb. Cortex. 18(4), 828 - 836.

Early music training 'tunes' auditory system

Mandarin is a tonal language, that is, the pitch pattern is as important as the sound of the syllables in determining the meaning of a word. In a small study, a Mandarin word was presented to 20 adults as they watched a movie. All were native English speakers with no knowledge of Mandarin, but half had at least six years of musical instrument training starting before the age of 12, while half had minimal or no musical training. As the subjects watched the movie, the researchers measured the accuracy of their brainstem ability to track three differently pitched "mi" sounds. Those who were musically trained were far better at tracking the three different tones than the non-musicians. The study is the first to provide concrete evidence that playing a musical instrument significantly enhances the brainstem's sensitivity to speech sounds, and supports the view that experience with music at a young age can "fine-tune" the brain's auditory system. The findings are in line with previous studies suggesting that musical experience can improve one's ability to learn tone languages in adulthood, and are also consistent with studies revealing anomalies in brainstem sound encoding in some children with learning disabilities which can be improved by auditory training. The findings are also noteworthy for implicating the brainstem in processing that has been thought of as exclusively involving the cortex.

[667] Wong, P. C. M., Skoe E., Russo N. M., Dees T., & Kraus N.
(2007).  Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns.
Nat Neurosci. 10(4), 420 - 422.

Why learning a new language may make you forget your old one

The common experience of having difficulty remembering words in your native language when you’ve been immersed in a new language is called first-language attrition, and new research has revealed that it occurs because native language words that might distract us when we are mastering a new language are actively inhibited. The study also found that this inhibition lessened as students became more fluent with the new language, suggesting it principally occurs during the initial stages of second language learning.

[659] Levy, B. J., McVeigh N. D., Marful A., & Anderson M. C.
(2007).  Inhibiting your native language: the role of retrieval-induced forgetting during second-language acquisition.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 18(1), 29 - 34.

Bilingualism has protective effect in delaying onset of dementia

An analysis of 184 people with dementia (132 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; the remaining 52 with other dementias) found that the mean age of onset of dementia symptoms in the 91 monolingual patients was 71.4 years, while for the 93 bilingual patients it was 75.5 years — a very significant difference. This difference remained even after considering the possible effect of cultural differences, immigration, formal education, employment and even gender as influencers in the results.

[1271] Bialystok, E., Craik F. I. M., & Freedman M.
(2007).  Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia.
Neuropsychologia. 45(2), 459 - 464.

How bilingualism affects the brain

Using a new technique, researchers have shed light on how bilingualism affects the brain. The study involved 20 younger adults of whom half were bilingual in Spanish and English. Similar brain activity, in the left Broca's area and left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), was found in bilinguals and monolinguals when the task involved only one language. However, when the bilinguals were simultaneously processing each of their two languages and rapidly switching between them, they showed an increase in brain activity in both the left and the right hemisphere Broca's area, with greater activation in the right equivalent of Broca's area and the right DLPFC. The findings support the view that the brains of bilinguals and monolinguals are similar, and both process their individual languages in fundamentally similar ways, but bilinguals engage more of the neurons available for language processing.

The study was presented at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting on October 14-18 in Atlanta, Ga.

How does the bilingual brain distinguish between languages?

Studies of bilingual people have found that the same brain regions, particularly parts of the left temporal cortex, are similarly activated by both languages. But there must be some part of the brain that knows one language from another. A new imaging study reveals that this region is the left caudate — a finding supported by case studies of bilingual patients with damage to the left caudate, who are prone to switch languages involuntarily.

[405] Stockton, K., Usui K., Green D. W., Price C. J., Crinion J., Turner R., et al.
(2006).  Language Control in the Bilingual Brain.
Science. 312(5779), 1537 - 1540.

Fast language learners have more white matter in auditory region

An imaging study has found that fast language learners have more white matter in a region of the brain that’s critical for processing sound. The study involved 65 French adults in their twenties, who were asked to distinguish two closely related sounds (the French 'da' sound from the Hindi 'da' sound). There was considerable variation in people’s ability to learn to tell these sounds apart — the fastest could do it within 8 minutes; the slowest were still guessing randomly after 20 minutes. The 11 fastest and 10 slowest learners were then given brain scans, revealing that the fastest learners had, on average, 70% more white matter in the left Heschl's gyrus than the slowest learners, as well as a greater asymmetry in the parietal lobe (the left being bigger than the right).

[569] Golestani, N., Molko N., Dehaene S., LeBihan D., & Pallier C.
(2007).  Brain Structure Predicts the Learning of Foreign Speech Sounds.
Cereb. Cortex. 17(3), 575 - 582.

Language learning declines after second year of life

A study involving 96 deaf children who had received cochlear implants during their first four years of life has found that the rate of language learning was greatest for those given implants before they turned two. Children given implants at three or four years of age acquired language skills more slowly. The finding supports the idea that there is a 'sensitive period' for language learning, and suggests that deaf children should get cochlear implants sooner (it is still relatively rare for them to be given to children younger than two).

The findings were presented on 16 May at the Acoustical Society of America conference in Vancouver, Canada.

Learning languages increases gray matter density

An imaging study of 25 Britons who did not speak a second language, 25 people who had learned another European language before the age of five and 33 bilinguals who had learned a second language between 10 and 15 years old found that the density of the gray matter in the left inferior parietal cortex of the brain was greater in bilinguals than in those without a second language. The effect was particularly noticeable in the "early" bilinguals. The findings were replicated in a study of 22 native Italian speakers who had learned English as a second language between the ages of two and 34.

Mechelli, A., Crinion, J.T., Noppeney, U., O'doherty, J., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R.S. & Price, C.J. 2004. Neurolinguistics: Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature, 431, 757.

Being fluent in two languages may help keep the brain sharper for longer

A study of 104 people aged between 30 and 88 has found that those who were fluent in two languages rather than just one were sharper mentally. Those fluent in two languages responded faster on tasks assumed to place demands on working memory, compared to those who were fluent in just English, at all age groups. This is consistent with the theory that constant management of 2 competing languages enhances executive functions. Bilingual volunteers were also much less likely to suffer from the mental decline associated with old age. The finding is consistent with other research suggesting that mental activity helps in protecting older adults from mental decline. The participants were all middle class, and educated to degree level. Half of the volunteers came from Canada and spoke only English. The other half came from India and were fluent in both English and Tamil.

[268] Bialystok, E., Craik F. I. M., Klein R., & Viswanathan M.
(2004).  Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: evidence from the Simon task.
Psychology and Aging. 19(2), 290 - 303.

Learning a second language may not be as laborious as believed

A study of adult learners of a second language has revealed that their brains still possess a surprising facility for learning words — much greater than the learner is consciously aware of. College students learning first-year French demonstrated brain activity that was clearly discriminating between real and pseudo-French words after only 14 hours of classroom instruction, although the students performed only at chance levels when asked to consciously choose whether or not the stimuli were real French words. The greater the exposure to French, the larger the difference in brain response to words and pseudo words.

[428] McLaughlin, J., Osterhout L., & Kim A.
(2004).  Neural correlates of second-language word learning: minimal instruction produces rapid change.
Nature Neuroscience. 7(7), 703 - 704.

Beneficial effects of bilingual learning

A recent Canadian study comparing young monolingual children to bilingual found that bilingual children were much better at a non-language cognitive task. The 4-6 year old bilingual children were versed in a spoken language and a signing one. It was suggested that their higher cognitive skill was due to the increased computational demands of processing two different language systems.

Baker, S.A., Kovelman, I., Bialystok, E. & Petitto, L. A. (2003, November). “Bilingual children’s complex linguistic experience yields a cognitive advantage.” Presented at 2003 Society For Neuroscience conference. New Orleans, LA.

Both languages active in bilingual speakers

An imaging study involving bilingual Dutch and English speakers suggests that when a bilingual person is speaking a second language, the first language is always active and cannot be suppressed. It was thought that an environment of total immersion in a language would provide massive exposure to a second language and suppress the first language. However, it’s now suggested that a large component of language immersion involves learning a new set of cues to the second language. To test this, students with no exposure to German or Dutch were taught 40 Dutch words. Some students learned the words in association with their English counterparts and others learned the words in association with a picture. Some of the pictures were oriented in the normal way and others were upside down or otherwise skewed. People who learned the Dutch in association with an object that was oriented uniquely were faster to later translate English words into Dutch. The mis-oriented pictures served as a unique cue.

The research was presented at the Second Language Research Forum, October 18, in Tucson, Arizona.

Second language best taught in childhood

Sadly, it does appear that the easiest time to learn a second language is, indeed, in childhood. An imaging study has found that when grammatical judgement in the second language was compared to grammatical judgement in first language (as evidenced by performance on sentences with grammatical mistakes), there was no difference in brain activation in those who learned the second language as children. However, people who acquired the second language late and with different proficiency levels displayed significantly more activity in the Broca's region during second language grammatical processing. "This finding suggests that at the level of brain activity, the parallel learning of the two languages since birth or the early acquisition of a second language are crucial in the setting of the neural substrate for grammar."

[232] Wartenburger, I., Heekeren H. R., Abutalebi J., Cappa S. F., Villringer A., & Perani D.
(2003).  Early Setting of Grammatical Processing in the Bilingual Brain.
Neuron. 37(1), 159 - 170.

Study finds there's a critical time for learning all languages, including sign language

It is generally believed that there is a critical period for learning a first language, and that children not exposed to language during this period will never fully acquire language. It is also thought that this might apply as well to second language learning — that those who learn another language after puberty can never become as fluent as those who learn it before puberty. A recent study suggests that this may also be true for non-verbal languages. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it was found that patterns of brain activity in bilingual people who learned American Sign Language (ASL) before puberty differed from those who learned it after puberty.

[1431] Newman, A. J., Bavelier D., Corina D., Jezzard P., & Neville H. J.
(2002).  A critical period for right hemisphere recruitment in American Sign Language processing.
Nat Neurosci. 5(1), 76 - 80.

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