How strong academic support can change university students’ lives


h1>How strong academic support can change university students’ lives

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Black South African students need fewer excuses and more support from universities.
Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Savo Heleta, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

In South Africa tens of thousands of students leave universities each year without completing their degrees. They are largely being pushed out of the system due to funding issues and a lack of academic support.

Funding is a national problem. But what about the lack of comprehensive academic support for students who really need it? The fault here lies squarely with universities.

Universities blame the country’s disastrous public schooling system for the fact that many students enter higher education unprepared.

Public schooling is definitely a massive problem. Research suggests that of one million children who enter Grade 1 in South Africa each year, half do not go on to complete secondary school. Only 100,000 get to university and only 53,000 graduate from university after six years in the tertiary system.

We must stop expecting first-year students – many of whom come from public schools and whose first language isn’t English – to somehow figure out how to cope with the rigorous demands of any university degree without genuine, committed support.

There are some programmes in place to ease the transition. But many students at my own institution have confided in me that these programmes are often inadequate. Most classes to improve second language speakers’ grasp of English are optional, as are workshops on academic preparedness. Some students attend them; others struggle to find time due to packed class schedules.

My institution has a writing centre to support students with essay and assignment writing. The problem is that it’s understaffed and students often have to wait weeks for an appointment.

But there’s a fascinating and troubling contradiction at play: this very same institution offers comprehensive and compulsory programmes to help students who don’t speak English as a first language – as long as they’re international students from outside South Africa. And these programmes work very well, helping students cope with university demands and go on to graduate.

These programmes must be adapted, broadened and rolled out to ensure that South African students who are struggling with English and the demands of university education don’t get left behind.

I’m speaking from experience. Fifteen years ago I barely spoke any English but managed to earn a scholarship to a university in the United States. The support I received there made a world of difference. Similar support can change South African students’ university experience – and their lives, too.

Comprehensive and dedicated support

In 2002 I received a scholarship to study at the College of St Benedict and St John’s University in Minnesota. I’m from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and English isn’t my first language. I learned a bit of English in primary school. Then the war interrupted my primary school education for two years. After the war, the education system was dysfunctional.

When I got to the US in 2002 I could hardly speak, read or write English.

I spent two months in a school for students learning English as a second language, then headed to university. This helped a bit but I needed so much more.

The first year at university was hell, academically speaking. I struggled to understand what was going on around me. I could hardly express myself or write my assignments. Often, I doubted myself and my choice to accept the scholarship. I doubted my own intelligence.

Over the years in South Africa, I have heard many accounts of similar struggles experienced by South African students whose first language isn’t English. They all speak about the inability to engage in English, to cope, follow lectures. They, too, often think that they are not good enough to be at the university.

The best thing about my first year was the English language class I attended with other international students. Our professor taught us to read, write, speak and present in English. There were three classes a week, but she supported us way beyond those set times.

Without her, I probably would have quit my studies. Instead, my marks improved dramatically and my confidence grew. In 2005 I was persuaded by my American friends to write a book about my wartime experiences. I wrote it in English. It was published in 2008.

I’ve been in South Africa since 2007, obtaining a Masters and PhD. Today I write, do research, publish, lecture, present at national and international conferences. All in English.

I didn’t accomplish any of this because I was special. The support I received at the start of my university education made all the difference.

Becoming student-ready institutions

In South Africa, the lack of comprehensive academic support for all who need it is excused by the lack of capacity and the price tag. But surely investing in programmes that bolster student success makes sense? After all, universities receive government funding partly based on their graduate numbers. And more graduates can boost the economy.

In 2013, the Council on Higher Education proposed that university studies and “qualifications should accord with the learning needs of the majority of the student intake”. This, the council argued, would entail extending undergraduate programmes by a year. The first year would become foundational, with students spending a considerable amount of time on compulsory academic preparedness and development.

This has not yet been implemented.

Byron White, vice president for university engagement at Cleveland State University, argues that universities need to stop complaining that their first-year students aren’t prepared for academic life. This approach, White says,

has allowed higher education to deflect accountability. It’s time that we fully embrace the burden of being student-ready institutions … It turns out the problem was not as much about the students as we thought. It was largely us, uninformed about what it takes to help them succeed or unwilling to allocate the resources necessary to put it into practice.

Universities must ditch the excuses and do more. Extensive academic support changes lives. It’s time we got to work.

Savo Heleta, Manager, Internationalisation at Home and Research, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Accessible, engaging textbooks could improve children’s learning


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It’s not enough for textbooks just to be present in a classroom. They must support learning.
Global Partnership for Education/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Lizzi O. Milligan, University of Bath

Textbooks are a crucial part of any child’s learning. A large body of research has proved this many times and in many very different contexts. Textbooks are a physical representation of the curriculum in a classroom setting. They are powerful in shaping the minds of children and young people. The Conversation

UNESCO has recognised this power and called for every child to have a textbook for every subject. The organisation argues that

next to an engaged and prepared teacher, well-designed textbooks in sufficient quantities are the most effective way to improve instruction and learning.

But there’s an elephant in the room when it comes to textbooks in African countries’ classrooms: language.

Rwanda is one of many African countries that’s adopted a language instruction policy which sees children learning in local or mother tongue languages for the first three years of primary school. They then transition in upper primary and secondary school into a dominant, so-called “international” language. This might be French or Portuguese. In Rwanda, it has been English since 2008.

Evidence from across the continent suggests that at this transition point, many learners have not developed basic literacy and numeracy skills. And, significantly, they have not acquired anywhere near enough of the language they are about to learn in to be able to engage in learning effectively.

I do not wish to advocate for English medium instruction, and the arguments for mother-tongue based education are compelling. But it’s important to consider strategies for supporting learners within existing policy priorities. Using appropriate learning and teaching materials – such as textbooks – could be one such strategy.

A different approach

It’s not enough to just hand out textbooks in every classroom. The books need to tick two boxes: learners must be able to read them and teachers must feel enabled to teach with them.

Existing textbooks tend not to take these concerns into consideration. The language is too difficult and the sentence structures too complex. The paragraphs too long and there are no glossaries to define unfamiliar words. And while textbooks are widely available to those in the basic education system, they are rarely used systematically. Teachers cite the books’ inaccessibility as one of the main reasons for not using them.

A recent initiative in Rwanda has sought to address this through the development of “language supportive” textbooks for primary 4 learners who are around 11 years old. These were specifically designed in collaboration with local publishers, editors and writers.

Language supportive textbooks have been shown to make a difference in some Rwandan classrooms.

There are two key elements to a “language supportive” textbook.

Firstly, they are written at a language level which is appropriate for the learner. As can be seen in Figure 1, the new concept is introduced in as simple English as possible. The sentence structure and paragraph length are also shortened and made as simple as possible. The key word (here, “soil”) is also repeated numerous times so that the learner becomes accustomed to this word.

University of Bristol and the British Council

Secondly, they include features – activities, visuals, clear signposting and vocabulary support – that enable learners to practice and develop their language proficiency while learning the key elements of the curriculum.

The books are full of relevant activities that encourage learners to regularly practice their listening, speaking, reading and writing of English in every lesson. This enables language development.

Crucially, all of these activities are made accessible to learners – and teachers – by offering support in the learners’ first language. In this case, the language used was Kinyarwanda, which is the first language for the vast majority of Rwandan people. However, it’s important to note that initially many teachers were hesitant about incorporating Kinyarwanda into their classroom practice because of the government’s English-only policy.

Improved test scores

The initiative was introduced with 1075 students at eight schools across four Rwandan districts. The evidence from our initiative suggests that learners in classrooms where these books were systematically used learnt more across the curriculum.

When these learners sat tests before using the books, they scored similar results to those in other comparable schools. After using the materials for four months, their test scores were significantly higher. Crucially, both learners and teachers pointed out how important it was that the books sanctioned the use of Kinyarwanda. The classrooms became bilingual spaces and this increased teachers’ and learners’ confidence and competence.

All of this supports the importance of textbooks as effective learning and teaching materials in the classroom and shows that they can help all learners. But authorities mustn’t assume that textbooks are being used or that the existing books are empowering teachers and learners.

Textbooks can matter – but it’s only when consideration is made for the ways they can help all learners that we can say that they can contribute to quality education for all.

Lizzi O. Milligan, Lecturer in International Education, University of Bath

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Indigenous languages won’t survive if kids are learning only English


Jane Simpson, Australian National University

The question of what language(s) to teach Indigenous students, what languages to teach them in, and how to go about it has been generating a little political heat (but not quite so much light) of late. The Conversation

On ABC’s Q&A earlier this month, Yalmay Yunupingu – the widow of Yothu Yindi front man Mandawuy Yunupingu – asked a pointed question about how the teaching of Indigenous languages will be funded given that Article 14 of the United Nation’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People states that Indigenous children have the right to education in their own language. And a recent piece in The Conversation by Stewart Riddle sparked controversy after he said it could be argued that the emphasis placed on English literacy was no better than discredited historical attempts to make Aboriginal kids more “white”.

In fact, there’s a broad consensus that Indigenous students need to be taught English to fully participate in society. Most people also agree Indigenous languages need to be preserved. But there’s a great deal of confusion about how to go about this. This stems from confusion about how to address the language needs of children.

How and what do we teach Indigenous children?

Let’s begin with children who come to an Australian school speaking an Indigenous language or Cantonese or Arabic or a language of Somalia or… These children need to learn English as a subject – they need to learn English grammar, pronunciation, and to expand their English vocabulary. Otherwise they’re cut off from the goods and services of mainstream society. Everyone agrees on this: Indigenous parents, immigrant parents and teachers alike. Where they disagree is how this should be done.

There’s the el cheapo sink-or-swim approach – we chuck the kids into an English-only classroom where they don’t understand a word of what is being said, and then we expect them to learn to speak English by immersion. This may work in classes where almost all the classmates speak English and the child’s parents can provide support at home. But it doesn’t work in classrooms where the classmates don’t speak English, and where parents can’t read or write English. If a child can’t understand what a teacher is saying about arithmetic, then they won’t learn the basics of arithmetic. Children become bored with not understanding what is happening in the classroom, and lose confidence in their ability to join in mainstream society.

There’s a better approach – where children are taught in English, but where from the start teachers do teach them English as a subject in a systematic way, building up their confidence in speaking, reading and writing English. This will result in delays in understanding subjects such as arithmetic and science, until children have mastered enough English to understand what the teacher is saying. But at least it gives them a chance to learn English well.

In both these approaches, the home language is sometimes taught as a subject for perhaps 30 minutes a week. This doesn’t help children understand what is happening in the classroom, but it may give them a sense that the language is valued. However, to do this properly, a staged curriculum is needed, where children build on what they have learned, and enhance their knowledge. There aren’t the materials to do this in many communities, and so children may endure a lot of repetition of the same low-level material on plants, animals and artefacts. This may lead them to think that their home language is a restricted language, not something that they can use on Facebook, or something to use to talk about rockets, asteroids etc.

Then there’s the best practice approach – where the home language is used as the medium of instruction in the classroom at the start. Children begin school with teachers who can explain what’s happening in the classroom in their home language. These teachers can teach children English in a systematic way, building up their confidence in speaking, reading and writing English grammatically.

They can explain the fascinating and complicated ideas of maths and science in a language that children can understand, until they have mastered enough English for a switch of language of instruction to English. This is ideal. For it to work, governments need to invest in training fluent speakers of the languages as teachers, in helping them learn how to teach children to speak, read, write and understand English, and in developing elementary curricula and materials in the languages (see the Living archive of Aboriginal languages for examples). The payoff of a good mother-tongue-medium instruction program is excellent – children who can talk about a range of ideas in two languages, and who grow up knowing that both their languages are valued.

Indigenous languages are shrinking

As the children grow older, there’s the question of enriching their home language. As English speakers, most Australians are used to developing a mastery of the language in school, through using it to talk about maths, the economy, genetics, and so on. They learn new ideas and new words to express these ideas concisely.

Some indigenous language teaching materials.
Author

Classes on English literature, poetry, plays, and films are other ways of increasing our knowledge of English. A few second language speakers of English may be lucky enough to have the opportunity to enrich their home languages in a similar fashion – German or French or Mandarin speaking children may be able to go to bilingual schools in Australia where they can learn to talk about ideas in a sophisticated way. They can learn at school about the histories and societies linked to their home languages. They can read Goethe, Victor Hugo, Mo Yan.

Indigenous children have no such luck. The domains in which they can use their home languages are shrinking, there is little or no material in their languages for them to study at school, and compulsory schooling in English means they have less time to speak their home languages anyway. Very few learn at school about the great works of verbal art of their communities. All too often, teaching about Indigenous arts at school is reduced to “didgeridoos, dots and damper”. Teaching at a higher level requires teachers who know the Indigenous language and understand the language of songs and storytelling, or who can collaborate effectively in team-teaching with senior Indigenous singers, performers and story-tellers.

English-only schooling as practised in most Australian Indigenous communities is destructive – it reduces children’s ability to learn English, to learn other subjects, to learn about the verbal arts of their own societies. It reduces opportunities to enrich their first languages through discussing new ideas in those languages. In the long-term, it reduces the chances that the next generation of Indigenous children will be bilingual in Indigenous languages and English. And in that way English-only schooling reduces the chances that Indigenous languages will survive much longer.

Jane Simpson, Chair of Indigenous Linguistics and Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language , Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Younger is not always better when it comes to learning a second language


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Learning a language in a classroom is best for early teenagers.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Warren Midgley, University of Southern Queensland

It’s often thought that it is better to start learning a second language at a young age. But research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, the best age to start learning a second language can vary significantly, depending on how the language is being learned. The Conversation

The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that children learn to speak their first language with remarkable skill at a very early age.

Before they can add two small numbers or tie their own shoelaces, most children develop a fluency in their first language that is the envy of adult language learners.

Why younger may not always be better

Two theories from the 1960s continue to have a significant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.

The theory of “universal grammar” proposes that children are born with an instinctive knowledge of the language rules common to all humans. Upon exposure to a specific language, such as English or Arabic, children simply fill in the details around those rules, making the process of learning a language fast and effective.

The other theory, known as the “critical period hypothesis”, posits that at around the age of puberty most of us lose access to the mechanism that made us such effective language learners as children. These theories have been contested, but nevertheless they continue to be influential.

Despite what these theories would suggest, however, research into language learning outcomes demonstrates that younger may not always be better.

In some language learning and teaching contexts, older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being learned.

Language immersion environment best for young children

Living, learning and playing in a second language environment on a regular basis is an ideal learning context for young children. Research clearly shows that young children are able to become fluent in more than one language at the same time, provided there is sufficient engagement with rich input in each language. In this context, it is better to start as young as possible.

Learning in classroom best for early teens

Learning in language classes at school is an entirely different context. The normal pattern of these classes is to have one or more hourly lessons per week.

To succeed at learning with such little exposure to rich language input requires meta-cognitive skills that do not usually develop until early adolescence.

For this style of language learning, the later years of primary school is an ideal time to start, to maximise the balance between meta-cognitive skill development and the number of consecutive years of study available before the end of school.

Self-guided learning best for adults

There are, of course, some adults who decide to start to learn a second language on their own. They may buy a study book, sign up for an online course, purchase an app or join face-to-face or virtual conversation classes.

To succeed in this learning context requires a range of skills that are not usually developed until reaching adulthood, including the ability to remain self-motivated. Therefore, self-directed second language learning is more likely to be effective for adults than younger learners.

How we can apply this to education

What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? In terms of the development of language proficiency, the message is fairly clear.

If we are able to provide lots of exposure to rich language use, early childhood is better. If the only opportunity for second language learning is through more traditional language classes, then late primary school is likely to be just as good as early childhood.

However, if language learning relies on being self-directed, it is more likely to be successful after the learner has reached adulthood.

Warren Midgley, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tough immigration laws are hitting Britain’s curry houses hard


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Emily Falconer, University of Westminster

The British curry industry is responsible for 100,000 jobs and contributes more than £4 billion to the UK economy. But it’s now feared that up to a third of all Indian restaurants could disappear because of tougher immigration laws. The Conversation

The current rules require restaurants that want to employ a chef from outside the EU to pay a minimum salary of £35,000 – or £29,750 with accommodation and food – to secure a visa.

These high costs have meant that many restaurants are unable to hire the skilled chefs they need – which has led to a shortage of top talent – with the ones that are available demanding higher wages. And this combination of rising costs, along with a shortage of chefs means that many curry houses are now facing closure.

Fusion food

Britain has a long, deep relationship with what is widely known as “Indian” food. But food eaten on the Indian subcontinent is so widely diverse, that it has as many differences as it has similarities. Meaning that “Indian” and “curry” is often used as an umbrella term for what is in reality a multifaceted combination of tastes and influences.

It’s been predicted that more than half of all curry houses may shut down within ten years.
Shutterstock

“Indian food” in reality is often derived from particular regions of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well as across Britain and Europe. And a long and complex history of colonialism and migration has made the “British Curry” a popular national dish.

As the author Panikos Panayai explains, decades of residing in Britain has inevitably changed the tastes and eating practices of many British Asian communities – whose connection with traditional foods has become increasingly tenuous.

In his book Spicing Up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food, Panayai charts the patterns of migration and the influences of food, taste and consumption habits. He follows the tastes of British Asians who have grown up with a fusion of tastes and influences all their life.

These are people whose diets reflect the variants of English food their parents invented to make use of the ingredients readily available to them – as opposed to just tastes from the Indian subcontinent. It meant childhood classics became spicy cheese on toast or baked Beans Balti with spring onion sabji and masala burgers.

Merging of tastes

Panayai claims that the taste of South Asian food became as much a part of the childhood tastes of white British children living in certain areas of the UK as their second and third generation Asian school friends.

In the London borough of Tower Hamlets for example – which is home to a large Bangladeshi community – local councillors played a significant role in influencing the content of school dinners. As early as the 1980s these lunches often included Asian vegetarian dishes, such as chapattis, rice and halal meat alongside “English” staples of chips, peas and steamed sponge with custard.

Fish and chips and curry sauce – a British speciality.
Flickr/Liz Barker, CC BY-NC

These tastes shaped the palates of many British children, to the point where a combination of “English” food and “curry” became the nostalgic taste of childhood. This was commodified by major brands such as Bisto with their “curry sauce” gravy granules.

These combinations are still a main feature of many “greasy spoon” English cafes or pub menus – which feature British staples such as curry served with a choice of either rice or chips, or jacket potatoes with a spicy chicken tikka filling. Then there’s the coronation chicken sandwich – a blend of boiled chicken, curry powder, mayonnaise and sultanas – a nod to the dish created for Queen Elizabeth II Coronation lunch in 1953.

More recently, in a time of gastronomic obsession and “foodie” culture, the “hybridisation” of cuisines has shifted from being a matter of necessity – due to availability of ingredients – to an increasingly sophisticated, cosmopolitan and fashionable food trend.

‘One spicy crab coming right up’.
Shutterstock

The influential taste of the British curry can now be identified on modern British fine dining menus, where fillets of Scottish salmon, hand-dived scallops and Cornish crabmeat are infused with spiced cumin, turmeric and fenugreek. While bread and butter pudding is laced with cardamom and saffron.

Multicultural Britain

But in the current political climate of migration restrictions, the free movement of people across borders looks ever more threatened – and with it our rich cultural heritage as a multicultural country is also under threat.

As diverse as the food on our plates.
Shutterstock

This will undoubtedly have a detrimental impact on imported food produce and ingredients. And it will also impact the diverse communities which have brought with them long histories of knowledge, recipes and cooking practices.

Of course, throughout history there has always been a degree of racism and resistance to “foreign” foods, but for the most part these tastes have become embraced and firmly appropriated into the British diet.

Perhaps then we can take heart during this uncertain time that merging cultures will be a British tradition that is set to continue. Because what started as the “taste of the other” is now so deeply ingrained in our food, culture and identity that it is no longer possible to disentangle national, regional or local tastes to determine what belongs where.

Emily Falconer, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Westminster

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why native English speakers fail to be understood in English – and lose out in global business


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shutterstock.com

Spencer Hazel, University of Nottingham

Language skills are often trumpeted as a cornerstone of social integration, allowing citizens to participate fully in their host communities. British prime minister David Cameron recently announced a £20m fund for English language lessons to tackle radicalisation in the UK, for example. Similarly, US presidential hopeful Donald Trump has called for assimilation and English-speaking in the US. The Conversation

But with transnational mobility and trade a defining feature of our times, what of Cameron’s or Trump’s own supporters and their ability to speak English within a wider international community?

Native English speakers are infamously unable to speak languages other than their own. As well as being a professional handicap, this has been shown to hinder exporters and hurt trade.

And now ironically, there is mounting evidence that in international business, native English speakers are failing to integrate as a result of their shortcomings when it comes to tailoring their English for this context. When it comes to English – the international language not only for business but also higher education and cross-border collaboration – research shows that, far from being able to rest on their laurels, native speakers are not masters of the world’s global language.

Baffling predicament

Speakers who have English as their mother tongue can find themselves in a baffling predicament. While at home they are persuaded that the rest of the world now speaks their lingo, abroad they discover that their own English renders them incomprehensible to colleagues and business partners. In one piece of research into English as a the world’s corporate language, a British expat in Scandinavia recounted:

When I started [in Denmark] I spoke I guess as I normally had done and wrote as I normally had done and people weren’t getting me, they weren’t understanding.

Indeed, while her Danish colleagues were increasingly used to working in English with others from the wider international community, it was the native varieties that caused problems. Used to working with English speakers from all over Europe, a Spanish student in Denmark remarked to another researcher: “Now it’s more difficult for me to understand the real English.”

What is more, this “real English” – which dizzyingly encompasses the whole range of dialects from Liverpool in England, to Wellington in New Zealand, via Johannesburg in South Africa, and Memphis in the US – is only the start of the problem.

Communication breakdowns

When an American manager in Japan cannot understand why his Japanese staff will not give him the “ballpark figure” he has demanded, this breakdown in communication can lead to a real disintegration in workplace relations. And the underlying feelings of mistrust are mutual. The inability of the travelling native English speaker to refrain from homeland idiosyncrasies, subtextual dexterity and cultural in-jokes has been found to result in resentment and suspicion.

International colleagues resent the lack of effort made on the part of the monoglot English speaker. They experience a loss of professional stature when having to speak with those who are not only comfortable with the language, but who appear to vaunt the effortlessness with which they bend the language to their will. And they suspect that the offending expat uses this virtuosity to gain unfair advantage in the workplace.

On a recent trip to Japan, a manager in an international consortium recounted to me how he and other international partners would hold back from actively contributing to meetings where his British and American partners dominated the floor. Following the meeting they would seek one another out to discuss matters between themselves in private.

This points to a very real danger that native English speakers, especially those who never mastered another language, risk missing out on business opportunities – whether in the form of contracts, idea development, job opportunities and the like – due to a basic lack of understanding of what international English communication entails.

The travel writer Pico Iyer once described a social visit of a British friend to his partner in Kyoto. He remarked: “The three of us embarked on an utterly unnecessary conversation in which I deftly translated from English into English and then back again.”

When it is much easier to work with others who are on the same page as you, the intransigent native English speaker may actually be given a wide berth by their counterparts abroad.

This should be a wake-up call for politicians like Cameron and Trump. Rather than laying the problems of English at the door of those who speak it as a second, third or fourth language, it would be wise for mother tongue nations to do more to prepare their professional classes for the language challenges they face abroad.

We might take heed of Robert Burns, if you can understand him, when he wrote:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!

Reflecting on the difficulties others may have in understanding our English may well be a good start to becoming a better member of the international community. And a more attractive business partner too.

Spencer Hazel, Research Fellow of Language and Social Interaction, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why the baby brain can learn two languages at the same time


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How do babies learn language?
Irene Zaccari, CC BY-NC-ND

Naja Ferjan Ramirez, University of Washington

Any adult who has attempted to learn a foreign language can attest to how difficult and confusing it can be. So when a three-year-old growing up in a bilingual household inserts Spanish words into his English sentences, conventional wisdom assumes that he is confusing the two languages. The Conversation

Research shows that this is not the case.

In fact, early childhood is the best possible time to learn a second language. Children who experience two languages from birth typically become native speakers of both, while adults often struggle with second language learning and rarely attain native-like fluency.

But the question remains: is it confusing for babies to learn two languages simultaneously?

When do babies learn language?

Research shows babies begin to learn language sounds before they’re even born. In the womb, a mother’s voice is one of the most prominent sounds an unborn baby hears. By the time they’re born, newborns can not only tell the difference between their mother’s language and another language, but also show a capability of distinguishing between languages.

Language learning depends on the processing of sounds. All the world’s languages put together comprise about 800 or so sounds. Each language uses only about 40 language sounds, or “phonemes,” which distinguish one language from another.

At birth, the baby brain has an unusual gift: it can tell the difference between all 800 sounds. This means that at this stage infants can learn any language that they’re exposed to. Gradually babies figure out which sounds they are hearing the most.

Babies learn to recognize their mother’s voice even before they are born.
John Mayer, CC BY

Between six and 12 months, infants who grow up in monolingual households become more specialized in the subset of sounds in their native language. In other words, they become “native language specialists.” And, by their first birthdays, monolingual infants begin to lose their ability to hear the differences between foreign language sounds.

Studying baby brains

What about those babies who hear two languages from birth? Can a baby brain specialize in two languages? If so, how is this process different then specializing in a single language?

Knowing how the baby brain learns one versus two languages is important for understanding the developmental milestones in learning to speak. For example, parents of bilingual children often wonder what is and isn’t typical or expected, or how their child will differ from those children who are learning a single language.

My collaborators and I recently studied the brain processing of language sounds in 11-month-old babies from monolingual (English only) and bilingual (Spanish-English) homes. We used a completely noninvasive technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG), which precisely pinpointed the timing and the location of activity in the brain as the babies listened to Spanish and English syllables.

We found some key differences between infants raised in monolingual versus bilingual homes.

At 11 months of age, just before most babies begin to say their first words, the brain recordings revealed that:

  • Babies from monolingual English households are specialized to process the sounds of English, and not the sounds of Spanish, an unfamiliar language
  • Babies from bilingual Spanish-English households are specialized to process the sounds of both languages, Spanish and English.
Here’s a video summarizing our study.

Our findings show that babies’ brains become tuned to whatever language or languages they hear from their caregivers. A monolingual brain becomes tuned to the sounds of one language, and a bilingual brain becomes tuned to the sounds of two languages. By 11 months of age, the activity in the baby brain reflects the language or languages that they have been exposed to.

Is it OK to learn two languages?

This has important implications. Parents of monolingual and bilingual children alike are eager for their little ones to utter the first words. It’s an exciting time to learn more about what the baby is thinking. However, a common concern, especially for bilingual parents, is that their child is not learning fast enough.

We found that the bilingual babies showed an equally strong brain response to English sounds as the monolingual babies. This suggests that bilingual babies were learning English at the same rate as the monolingual babies.

Parents of bilingual children also worry that their children will not know as many words as children who are raised with one language.

Bilingualism does not cause confusion.
jakeliefer, CC BY

To some extent, this concern is valid. Bilingual infants split their time between two languages, and thus, on average, hear fewer words in each. However, studies consistently show that bilingual children do not lag behind when both languages are considered.

Vocabulary sizes of bilingual children, when combined across both languages, have been found to be equal to or greater than those of monolingual children.

Another common concern is that bilingualism causes confusion. Part of this concern arises due to “code switching,” a speaking behavior in which bilinguals combine both languages.

For example, my four-year-old son, who speaks English, Spanish, and Slovene, goes as far as using the Slovene endings on Spanish and English words. Research shows bilingual children code-switch because bilingual adults around them do too. Code-switching in bilingual adults and children is rule-governed, not haphazard.

Unlike monolingual children, bilingual children have another language from which they can easily borrow if they can’t quickly retrieve the appropriate word in one language. Even two-year-olds modulate their language to match the language used by their interlocutor.

Researchers have shown code switching to be part of a bilingual child’s normal language development. And it could even be the beginning of what gives them the extra cognitive prowess known as the “bilingual advantage.”

Bilingual kids are at an advantage

The good news is young children all around the world can and do acquire two languages simultaneously. In fact, in many parts of the world, being bilingual is the norm rather than an exception.

It is now understood that the constant need to shift attention between languages leads to several cognitive advantages. Research has found that bilingual adults and children show an
improved executive functioning of the brain – that is, they are able to shift attention, switch between tasks and solve problems more easily. Bilinguals have also been found to have increased metalinguistic skills (the ability to think about language per se, and understand how it works). There is evidence that being bilingual makes the learning of a third language easier. Further, the accumulating effect of dual language experience is thought to translate into protective effects against cognitive decline with aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

So, if you want your child to know more than one language, it’s best to start at an early age, before she even starts speaking her first language. It won’t confuse your child, and it could even give her a boost in other forms of cognition.

Naja Ferjan Ramirez, Research Scientist, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.