How learning a new language improves tolerance


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Why learn a new language?
Timothy Vollmer, CC BY

Amy Thompson, University of South Florida

There are many benefits to knowing more than one language. For example, it has been shown that aging adults who speak more than one language have less likelihood of developing dementia.

Additionally, the bilingual brain becomes better at filtering out distractions, and learning multiple languages improves creativity. Evidence also shows that learning subsequent languages is easier than learning the first foreign language.

Unfortunately, not all American universities consider learning foreign languages a worthwhile investment.

Why is foreign language study important at the university level?

As an applied linguist, I study how learning multiple languages can have cognitive and emotional benefits. One of these benefits that’s not obvious is that language learning improves tolerance.

This happens in two important ways.

The first is that it opens people’s eyes to a way of doing things in a way that’s different from their own, which is called “cultural competence.”

The second is related to the comfort level of a person when dealing with unfamiliar situations, or “tolerance of ambiguity.”

Gaining cross-cultural understanding

Cultural competence is key to thriving in our increasingly globalized world. How specifically does language learning improve cultural competence? The answer can be illuminated by examining different types of intelligence.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg’s research on intelligence describes different types of intelligence and how they are related to adult language learning. What he refers to as “practical intelligence” is similar to social intelligence in that it helps individuals learn nonexplicit information from their environments, including meaningful gestures or other social cues.

Learning a foreign language reduces social anxiety.
COD Newsroom, CC BY

Language learning inevitably involves learning about different cultures. Students pick up clues about the culture both in language classes and through meaningful immersion experiences.

Researchers Hanh Thi Nguyen and Guy Kellogg have shown that when students learn another language, they develop new ways of understanding culture through analyzing cultural stereotypes. They explain that “learning a second language involves the acquisition not only of linguistic forms but also ways of thinking and behaving.”

With the help of an instructor, students can critically think about stereotypes of different cultures related to food, appearance and conversation styles.

Dealing with the unknown

The second way that adult language learning increases tolerance is related to the comfort level of a person when dealing with “tolerance of ambiguity.”

Someone with a high tolerance of ambiguity finds unfamiliar situations exciting, rather than frightening. My research on motivation, anxiety and beliefs indicates that language learning improves people’s tolerance of ambiguity, especially when more than one foreign language is involved.

It’s not difficult to see why this may be so. Conversations in a foreign language will inevitably involve unknown words. It wouldn’t be a successful conversation if one of the speakers constantly stopped to say, “Hang on – I don’t know that word. Let me look it up in the dictionary.” Those with a high tolerance of ambiguity would feel comfortable maintaining the conversation despite the unfamiliar words involved.

Applied linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Li Wei also study tolerance of ambiguity and have indicated that those with experience learning more than one foreign language in an instructed setting have more tolerance of ambiguity.

What changes with this understanding

A high tolerance of ambiguity brings many advantages. It helps students become less anxious in social interactions and in subsequent language learning experiences. Not surprisingly, the more experience a person has with language learning, the more comfortable the person gets with this ambiguity.

And that’s not all.

Individuals with higher levels of tolerance of ambiguity have also been found to be more entrepreneurial (i.e., are more optimistic, innovative and don’t mind taking risks).

In the current climate, universities are frequently being judged by the salaries of their graduates. Taking it one step further, based on the relationship of tolerance of ambiguity and entrepreneurial intention, increased tolerance of ambiguity could lead to higher salaries for graduates, which in turn, I believe, could help increase funding for those universities that require foreign language study.

Those who have devoted their lives to theorizing about and the teaching of languages would say, “It’s not about the money.” But perhaps it is.

Language learning in higher ed

Most American universities have a minimal language requirement that often varies depending on the student’s major. However, students can typically opt out of the requirement by taking a placement test or providing some other proof of competency.

Why more universities should teach a foreign language.
sarspri, CC BY-NC

In contrast to this trend, Princeton recently announced that all students, regardless of their competency when entering the university, would be required to study an additional language.

I’d argue that more universities should follow Princeton’s lead, as language study at the university level could lead to an increased tolerance of the different cultural norms represented in American society, which is desperately needed in the current political climate with the wave of hate crimes sweeping university campuses nationwide.

Knowledge of different languages is crucial to becoming global citizens. As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted,

“Our country needs to create a future in which all Americans understand that by speaking more than one language, they are enabling our country to compete successfully and work collaboratively with partners across the globe.”

The ConversationConsidering the evidence that studying languages as adults increases tolerance in two important ways, the question shouldn’t be “Why should universities require foreign language study?” but rather “Why in the world wouldn’t they?”

Amy Thompson, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of South Florida

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

 

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The shelf-life of slang – what will happen to those ‘democracy sausages’?


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Kate Burridge, Monash University

Every year around this time, dictionaries across the English-speaking world announce their “Word of the Year”. These are expressions (some newly minted and some golden oldies too) that for some reason have shot into prominence during the year.

Earlier this month The Australian National Dictionary Centre declared its winner “democracy sausage” – the barbecued snag that on election day makes compulsory voting so much easier to swallow.

Dictionaries make their selections in different ways, but usually it involves a combination of suggestions from the public and the editorial team (who have been meticulously tracking these words throughout the year). The Macquarie Dictionary has two selections – the Committee’s Choice made by the Word of the Year Committee, and the People’s Choice made by the public (so make sure you have your say on January 24 for the People’s Choice winner 2016).

It’s probably not surprising that these words of note draw overwhelmingly from slang language, or “slanguage” – a fall-out of the increasing colloquialisation of English usage worldwide. In Australia this love affair with the vernacular goes back to the earliest settlements of English speakers.

And now there’s the internet, especially social networking – a particularly fertile breeding ground for slang.

People enjoy playing with language, and when communicating electronically they have free rein. “Twitterholic”, “twaddiction”, “celebritweet/twit”, “twitterati” are just some of the “tweologisms” that Twitter has spawned of late. And with a reported average of 500 million tweets each day, Twitter has considerable capacity not only to create new expressions, but to spread them (as do Facebook, Instagram and other social networking platforms).

But what happens when slang terms like these make it into the dictionary? Early dictionaries give us a clue, particularly the entries that are stamped unfit for general use. Branded entries were certainly plentiful in Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century work, and many are now wholly respectable: abominably “a word of low or familiar language”, nowadays “barbarous usage”, fun “a low cant word” (what would Johnson have thought of very fun and funner?).

Since the point of slang is to mark an in-group, to amuse and perhaps even to shock outsiders with novelty, most slang expressions are short-lived. Those that survive become part of the mainstream and mundane. Quite simply, time drains them of their vibrancy and energy. J.M. Wattie put it more poetically back in 1930:

Slang terms are the mayflies of language; by the time they get themselves recorded in a dictionary, they are already museum specimens.

But, then again, expressions occasionally do sneak through the net. Not only do they survive, they stay slangy – and sometimes over centuries. Judge for yourselves. Here are some entries from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language. Written by British convict James Hardy Vaux in 1812, this is the first dictionary compiled in Australia.

croak “to die”

grub “food”

kid “deceive”

mug “face”

nuts on “to have a strong inclination towards something or someone”

on the sly “secretly”

racket “particular kind of fraud”

snitch “to betray”

stink “an uproar”

spin a yarn “tell a tale of great adventure”

These were originally terms of flash – or, as Vaux put it, “the cant language used by the family”. In other words, they belonged to underworld slang. The term slang itself meant something similar at this time; it broadened to highly colloquial language in the 1800s.

Vaux went on to point out that “to speak good flash is to be well versed in cant terms” — and, having been transported to New South Wales on three separate occasions during his “checkered and eventful life” (his words), Vaux himself was clearly well versed in the world of villainy and cant.

True, the majority of the slang terms here have dropped by the wayside (barnacles “spectacles”; lush “to drink”), and the handful that survives are now quite standard (grab “to seize”; dollop “large quantity”). But there are a few that have not only lasted, they’ve remained remarkably contemporary-sounding – some still even a little “disgraceful” (as Vaux described them).

The shelf-life of slang is a bit of mystery. Certainly some areas fray faster than others. Vaux’s prime, plummy and rum (meaning “excellent”) have well and truly bitten the dust. Cool might have made a comeback (also from the 1800s), but intensifiers generally wear out.

Far out and ace have been replaced by awesome, and there are plenty of new “awesome” words lurking in the wings. Some of these are already appearing on lists for “Most Irritating Word of the Year” – it’s almost as if their success does them in. Amazeballs, awesomesauce and phat are among the walking dead.

But as long as sausage sizzles continue to support Australian voters on election day, democracy sausages will have a place – and if adopted elsewhere, might even entice the politically uninterested into polling booths.

The Conversation

Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University

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

Is it a case of ‘the younger, the better’ for children learning a new language?


As primary school children bound through the first weeks of their summer holidays, perhaps those lucky enough to go abroad will get the chance to practice some of the new vocabulary they’ve learnt in a foreign language class. It’s the end of the first academic year in which languages were introduced formally within the primary school curriculum in England: in September 2014, it became compulsory for all children aged seven and older to learn a foreign language.

There is a widespread belief that if only we could teach foreign languages very early, Britain could stop lagging behind its European counterparts in terms of language capability. But is the earlier the better when it comes to learning a new language?

There is a difference between children immersed in the new language they are learning, for example as immigrants in a new country, and children exposed to a foreign language in the classroom for a few hours a week at best.

In the case of immigrant children, research has shown that adolescents and young adults are faster learners than young children. However, young children, do eventually catch up with older learners and typically become indistinguishable from native speakers, which is not generally the case for adults. For immigrant children, earlier does seem better, but only if children are given plenty of time and opportunity to make the most being immersed in a new language.

In the classroom, older kids learn faster

When it comes to learning a foreign language in a classroom context, only limited research has looked at whether starting earlier is better. Researchers have found that young children are very enthusiastic, love learning foreign languages and enjoy discovering new worlds and ways of saying things. But primary school age children are slower at learning languages.

One study that looked at the language abilities of Japanese college students who had started learning English between ages three and twelve, found a small advantage for an early start. But the children had six to eight hours of instruction per week for 44 weeks a year over six years (primary school children in England normally only have one hour per week).

In the Barcelona Age Factor research project, Carmen Muñoz and her team capitalised on the fact that the government changed the age at which English was introduced in the classroom in rapid succession. This created a natural experiment whereby they were able to compare second language learners having started at ages eight, 11, 14 and over 18.

Muñoz was able to follow a large number of learners over a long period of time (learners were tested after 200, 416 and 726 hours of instruction) and compare their learning on a wide range of measures. They found that with the same amount of instruction, late starters were consistently faster and more efficient learners.

What age to start at? 

Most of the research to date has focused on English being learned as a foreign language in countries where there is a lot of pressure for children to learn it in order to become successful global citizens. But in the UK, children already grow up speaking the world’s “global” language, and the cultural context and lack of commitment from successive governments has made the learning of foreign languages anything but central to the educational agenda.

My recent study compared how children aged five, seven and 11 learn French in the classroom. All children were complete beginners at the beginning of the project and exposed to two hours a week of similar instruction by the same teacher over 19 weeks.

We found that the older children learnt faster because they were better able to use a range of cognitive strategies to aid their learning, and they also used their more advanced literacy skills to support their foreign language learning. The younger children, however, were the most enthusiastic.

Number of hours per week matter

So, is younger better? If “better” means developing an enthusiasm for learning languages, then much of the evidence suggests that younger is better. We know that children become less enthusiastic as they get older. There are many reasons for this, but they include the transition from primary to secondary, when children who have been learning a language in primary school join a language class with children who haven’t and get bored.

If “better” means faster linguistic progress, the research evidence is that older children outperform younger children: their greater cognitive maturity helps them make the best of the shorter lessons and of explicit instruction. The few studies which have found a small advantage for an early start were in instructed contexts with a large number of teaching hours per week. It seems that young children, as they learn more implicitly than older children, need abundant input and rich interaction to allow their implicit language learning mechanisms to work.

The one hour per week in the national primary curriculum falls well short of the many hours children spend learning their native language, and expectations must therefore be realistic in terms of linguistic development. If this hour per week awakens a lifelong interest in foreign languages, this is very welcome; but it must be nurtured.

Written by Prof Florence Myles