The Power of the Bilingual Brain

Jeffrey Kluger in Time, July 29, 2013:

Never mind how well spoken you might be now, you will never again be as adept with languages as the day you were born. Indeed, the youngest person in any room is almost always the best linguist there too. There are 6,800 languages in the world, and since you can’t know where you’ll be born, you have to pop from the womb to be able to speak any one of them. That talent fades fast — as early as nine months after birth, some of our language synapses start getting pruned away. But well into your grammar-school years, your ability to learn a second — or third or fourth — language is still remarkable.

That, it turns out, is very good for the brain. New studies are showing that a multilingual brain is nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer. All of this is prompting public schools to implement language-immersion programs for kids as young as kindergarteners, as I report in the new issue of TIME; nowhere is that more evident than in Utah, where 20% of all public schools offer K-12 dual-language instruction, with students taking half their classes every day in English and half in either Spanish, French, Mandarin or Portuguese. To date, representatives from 22 other states have gone to Utah to learn more about the program.

The kids in bilingual classes in Utah and elsewhere aren’t thinking much about the nature of their brains when they go to school each morning; they’re only aware of the rich and lyrical experience of living and learning bilingually. But scientists — particularly neurologists, psychologists and educational specialists — are watching closely. In a polyglot world, a largely monoglot nation like the U.S. is at last moving to catch up — and not a moment too soon.


Leave a comment

Filed under articles

Can Singing Aid Foreign Language Learning?

Jimmy Kilpatrick in Education News, July 19,2013:

Singing in a foreign language can make learning how to speak it easier.

It is a source of national embarrassment – despite hours of lessons and listening to foreign language tapes, most of us can barely stammer our way through a simple drinks order while abroad.

However, a new study suggests there may be hope for those who struggle to get to grips with a foreign language – they should try singing it instead.

Research from the University of Edinburgh found that adults who sang words or short phrases from a foreign language while learning were twice as good at speaking it later.

It is thought that by listening to words that are sung, and by singing them back, the technique takes advantage of the strong links between music and memory.

Although not clearly understood, music is known to help students when studying and can help to trigger memory recall.

Dr Katie Overy, who led the study at the university’s Reid School of Music, said singing could provide a new alternative to the traditional listen and repeat method of teaching new languages.

She said: “Most people have experience of remembering words from songs they have heard and songs are sometimes used by language teachers with young children.

“We thought we would explore whether there was a benefit and found singing was more much effective, particularly when it came to the spoken language tests.”

Dr Overy and her colleague Dr Karen Ludke, whose findings are published in the journal Memory and Cognition, used recordings of Hungarian words to teach 60 adults.

They chose Hungarian as they participants were unlikely to have encountered it before and none had any experience of learning this language.

The participants either listened to words that were spoken and then had to repeat them back, much like a standard teach yourself tape, or the words were said rhythmically or sung.

After a 15 minute learning period, they were then given a test to see how well they had learned the words. Those who had used the “listen and sign” approach scored highest.

They were also better at recalling the words correctly in tests of long term memory.

Importantly they did not sing the words when they recalled them.

Dr Ludke said the findings could help those who struggle to learn foreign languages.

She said: “The results suggest a listen and sing learning method can facilitate verbatim memory for spoken language phrases.

“It opens the door for future research in this areas. One question is whether melody could provide an extra cue to jog people’s memory, helping them recall foreign words and phrases more easily.”

Leave a comment

Filed under articles

Lobbyists Become Voice of Foreign Language Proponents

This is great news!

Article by Catherine Ho in Washington Post, June 30, 2013:

Bill Rivers and Hans Fenstermacher, lobbyists for the language services industry, think there is something missing from the national push to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education: an emphasis on foreign language.

That’s why they are pairing up to form what they call the first U.S. lobby for the language industry, and pushing to raise awareness on the importance of foreign language in education and the U.S. workforce.

Together, they are lobbying on federal and state-level policy issues surrounding language education, including advocating for more federal funding for language programs and opposing a bill pending in the Michigan state legislature that would allow some students to get around the two-year foreign language requirement to graduate.

Their interests reflect concerns in both the private and public sector about foreign language skills. Washington-based Fenstermacher is the founder and chairman of the Globalization & Localization Association, a trade group representing companies that provide translation and “localization” services — translating language about products based on the region ti where they’re being marketed . Rivers leads the District-based Joint National Committee for Languages and National Council for Languages and International Studies, nonprofit organizations that represent linguists, foreign language teachers and institutions pushing to improve language education in K-12 schools and universities.

“We’d like to see the definition of STEM be broader to include the areas that can create infrastructure we need from the language industry perspective,” Fenstermacher said. “When people hear ‘science,’ they think biology, engineering and chemistry. But the language industry is highly technological and scientific today. There’s a great deal of science and technology that underlies an area like ours.”

For example, Rivers said, the technology that supports translation tools such as Google Translate and Babel Fish call for programmers who have both language and technical skills. The kinds of workers the language services industry needs to hire must have a background in both.

“We face a critical language industry talent crisis and we urgently need 21st century skills to keep driving the sector,” Fenstermacher said. “Without the support from policymakers in this country, the language enterprise will fall short.”

Leave a comment

Filed under articles

Scots Urged to Learn Foreign Languages

Stewart Paterson in, June 21, 2013:

f you had to rely on a Google translation of the above introduction, don’t worry because that is where I went to check it was correct.

It says, ‘This week I would like to speak about languages’.

French, or any other language other than English for that matter, is not my strongest point and in that respect I am far from alone in this country.

Holyrood’s European Committee has just given its report on its inquiry into foreign language learning in primary schools.

It recommends we teach one foreign language from primary one right through to secondary school.

Wow. Radical or what?

How many times have you been left stumped in another country when faced with someone who does not speak English?

How many times have you heard someone from these islands speak in a slow, monosyllabic, child-like voice trying to get their point across to a native on a foreign holiday?

Then they bemoan the fact the person does not speak English, without a hint of irony.

As a nation we need to drastically improve our modern language capability.

The committee rightly raised concerns about the ability to deliver the ambition of teaching two foreign languages.

From where we are today it will take decades to get up to speed with most of our European neighbours.

It will require a massive investment in training primary school teachers to have the capability required to deliver effective language teaching to primary pupils that will allow further study.

There is also a need for a willingness to change the attitudes of some people that there is less of a need for our people to learn a foreign language because so many others speak ours.

This lazy attitude is holding people back because learning a language provides for a better educated population.

It will also make us more outward in our outlook, and mean more people will be able to grasp opportunities in a global world.

The benefits for foreign trade and investment are obvious in an international economy and the more people we have speaking other languages the better.

There is a certain irony that Glasgow is preparing to host the Commonwealth Games next year welcoming people from all over the world many of whom speak English because their ancestors were forced to speak a foreign language, English, as a result of colonialism.

The independence referendum means other countries in Europe and beyond are taking an interest in Scotland and following the constitutional debate with interest, many by reading our news online, in English.

It is about time we made a serious effort to catch up, even if it does take 25 years.

Au revoir, adios, arrivederci.

Leave a comment

Filed under articles

The Benefits of Foreign Language Learning

Once again, there are a multitude of benefits to learning another language as this new article points out. How many more reasons do you need to start learning another (or more)? Anne Merritt in The Telegraph, June 19, 2013:

Physiological studies have found that speaking two or more languages is a great asset to the cognitive process. The brains of bilingual people operate differently than single language speakers, and these differences offer several mental benefits.

Below are seven cognitive advantages to learning a foreign language. Many of these attributes are only apparent in people who speak multiple languages regularly – if you haven’t spoken a foreign tongue since your A levels, your brain might not be reaping these bilingual benefits. However, people who begin language study in their adult lives can still achieve the same levels of fluency as a young learner, and still reap the same mental benefits, too.

You become smarter

Speaking a foreign language improves the functionality of your brain by challenging it to recognise, negotiate meaning, and communicate in different language systems. This skill boosts your ability to negotiate meaning in other problem-solving tasks as well.

Students who study foreign languages tend to score better on standardised tests than their monolingual peers, particularly in the categories of maths, reading, and vocabulary.

You build multitasking skills

Multilingual people, especially children, are skilled at switching between two systems of speech, writing, and structure. According to a study from the Pennsylvania State University, this “juggling” skill makes them good multitaskers, because they can easily switch between different structures. In one study, participants used a driving simulator while doing separate, distracting tasks at the same time. The research found that people who spoke more than one language made fewer errors in their driving.

You stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia

Several studies have been conducted on this topic, and the results are consistent. For monolingual adults, the mean age for the first signs of dementia is 71.4. For adults who speak two or more languages, the mean age for those first signs is 75.5. Studies considered factors such as education level, income level, gender, and physical health, but the results were consistent.

Top 10 best languages to study to get a job: in pictures

Your memory improves

Educators often liken the brain to a muscle, because it functions better with exercise. Learning a language involves memorising rules and vocabulary, which helps strengthen that mental “muscle.” This exercise improves overall memory, which means that multiple language speakers are better at remembering lists or sequences. Studies show that bilinguals are better at retaining shopping lists, names, and directions.

You become more perceptive

A study from Spain’s University of Pompeu Fabra revealed that multilingual people are better at observing their surroundings. They are more adept at focusing on relevant information and editing out the irrelevant. They’re also better at spotting misleading information. Is it any surprise that Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are skilled polyglots?

Your decision-making skills improve

According to a study from the University of Chicago, bilinguals tend to make more rational decisions. Any language contains nuance and subtle implications in its vocabulary, and these biases can subconsciously influence your judgment. Bilinguals are more confident with their choices after thinking it over in the second language and seeing whether their initial conclusions still stand up.

You improve your English

Learning a foreign language draws your focus to the mechanics of language: grammar, conjugations, and sentence structure. This makes you more aware of language, and the ways it can be structured and manipulated. These skills can make you a more effective communicator and a sharper editor and writer. Language speakers also develop a better ear for listening, since they’re skilled at distinguishing meaning from discreet sounds.

Anne Merritt is an EFL lecturer currently based in South Korea. She writes at

Leave a comment

Filed under articles

An Irreverent Look at Learning Foreign Languages

Buzzfeed has outdone itself with this irreverent bit about the pitfalls of language learning.

Here’s the link to “17 Things You’ll Only Understand If You Studied A Foreign Language at University:

Leave a comment

Filed under articles

Benefits of Learning Foreign Languages

Here’s a column by “Mr. Dad” (a.k.a. Armin Brott) that argues the benefits of foreign language learning. Definitely worth reading! from, June 7, 2013:

Dear Mr. Dad: The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world and everyone wants to do business with us. Since we speak English here, how important do you think it is for children to learn a foreign language?

Unfortunately, our education system doesn’t place a lot of value on foreign-language knowledge – for exactly the reasons you mentioned. But in my view, it’s very important.

Of course, you’re talking to a guy with an undergrad degree in Russian and a minor in French, so you can take that with a grain of salt.

But there’s plenty of research to back me up. Let me walk you through some of the benefits.

• It can make you smarter – Numerous studies have found that studying a foreign language improves students’ listening skills, memory, and attention span, along with their critical thinking skills, ability to solve problems, and creativity.

Foreign language learners also do better than their mono-lingual (knowing only one-language) peers on verbal and math tests. Yes, math. Some experts believe that learning a new language requires an understanding of patterns and deciphering puzzles – both of which are related to mathematics. Multi-lingual kids also increase their English vocabulary, reading, and grammar usage.

• It could help you get a job, and more – Participants in a recent study done at the American Graduate School of International Management (Thunderbird) in Glendale, Ariz., told researchers that knowing a foreign language had given them a leg up in being hired and improved their career paths. It also made them more aware of and interested in other cultures,

• It’s patriotic – According to the National Research Council, “A pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry.” In other words, the easier it is to communicate with people, the less they’ll be to go to war.

• It keeps your mind sharp – Knowledge of two or more languages has been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s and other similar brain diseases.

• It makes your brain bigger – Students in the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy have to become fluent in several different languages within only 13 months.

Researchers compared the students’ brains with those of others who also have to learn a huge amount of information in a short time, such as medical students. They found that the language learners experienced major growth in several areas of the brain (the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex). But the medical students’ brains didn’t grow at all.

• It can make the world a little smaller. Knowing another language – or developing the skills to learn one – makes it easier to travel and to enjoy other countries’ culture.

Rather than asking whether or not you should have your child learn a second language, I’d suggest that you ask: When? And the answer to that one is “The younger the better.”

Some studies indicate that starting at around age 10, we start losing the ability to hear and reproduce sounds from other languages. That explains why most people who move to a new country as adults can’t quite lose their accent.

But their children master the host language – including idioms, slang, and even swearing – accent-free. Each additional year of second language training increases the chances of experiencing the benefits above.

Armin Brott, a.k.a. “Mr. Dad,” is the author of “The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips and Advice for Dads-to-Be.”

Leave a comment

Filed under articles