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Recent Studies on Learning New Language- When and How?

19 Oct

Most public schools do not introduce foreign language instruction until Middle School.  Considering what the research says about the “critical period” for learning language, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.  But here at PS20, we are following evidence based research and have implemented a dual language Mandarin program that starts in Kindergarten.  Research suggests that the younger the brain, the more flexible it is in regards to discriminating between sounds of a foreign language.

When children are exposed to more than one language, their brain will wire itself to discriminate between the phonetic sounds of  both languages.  In a child exposed to only one language, eventually the brain wires itself to discriminate between a smaller set of sounds- only those native to the language the child hears.  By the time we are 7, we begin a systematic decline in our brain’s flexibility to learn new sounds.  Therefore, as an adult having never been exposed to Mandarin, for example, I cannot listen to a Mandarin speaker and discriminate between all of the sounds in the language.   My brain has solidified patterns and pathways and limited them the English language.  This isn’t to say I can’t train my brain to hear and learn new sounds- it will just be much more difficult for me to learn.

Some parents have concerns that by teaching two languages their kids might become confused or fall behind their monolingual peers in terms of language development.  According to a recent New York Times Article entitled Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language, scientists are showing that there are differences in the brains of children who grow up bilingual (exposed to two languages), vs. children who grow monolingual (exposed to only one language).  Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, has shown that bilingual children develop crucial skills in addition to their double vocabularies, learning different ways to solve logic problems or to handle multitasking.  These skills are known as executive functioning skills.  Bialystok says that, “Overwhelmingly, children who are bilingual from early on have precocious development of executive function.”  So rest assured – research is showing that our bilingual kiddos are enhanced, not hindered by second language acquisition.

Furthermore, research has shown that babies learn new language through human interaction and not through listening to audio (through headphones) or watching and listening to TV.  This has profound implications for early learning.  The social brain must be active for children to learn new sounds and language.  A recent study by Patricia Kuhl showed that English-speaking babies exposed repeatedly to a Mandarin speaker were able to discriminate between Mandarin sounds during a lab test.  However, when English-speaking babies were exposed to the same amount of Mandarin through watching it on a TV and listening to it through headphones, the babies learned nothing.

To hear more about this new research, watch this ten minute talk entitled, The Linguistic Genius of Babies, in which Dr. Kuhl shares astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another  by listening to the humans around them and re-wiring the brain to remember the sounds they need to know. Brain scans show how 6-month-old babies discriminate between sounds.

Piggy-backing on Kuhl’s research was another recent New York Times Article, entitled, Parents Urged Again to Limit TV for Youngest.  This article appeared in yesterday’s paper and reports that video screen time has no educational benefit for young children.  Children learn through face to face interactions with others- the social brain needs to be active  for learning to take place.  “What we know from recent research on language development is that the more language that comes in — from real people — the more language the child understands and produces later on,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University.

The article reports that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents should limit the amount of time their young children are simply watching a screen (TV, iPad, cell phone) because there is no such thing as educational programming for young children.  There is evidence to suggest that older children can learn through some types of media, but younger children learn best through real life interactions and play. The articles author, Benedict Carey, summarizes that “for every hour a child under 2 spends in front of a screen, he or she spends about 50 minutes less interacting with a parent, and about 10 percent less time in creative play.”

I talk a lot about the use of technology, specifically the iPad, in Speech & Language Therapy. The iPad is useful because it takes the place of wasteful paper materials such as worksheets and flashcards, and saves time on preparing certain activities and games that I used to make by hand.  It can generate thousands of vocabulary words and pictures and stories at the click of a button without me having to spend hours searching for specific target words or sounds online or in books.  But in order for it to be effective in the learning process, there must be face to face interaction with the therapist or parent, activating the social brain and facilitating the learning experience.

In summary:  Learning new language – When?  Early.  How?  Through human interaction.

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