Bilingualism boosts Cognitive Function says TED-ed lesson

In newly-uploaded TED-Ed lesson titled, The benefits of a bilingual brain, educator Mia Nacamulli teaches how language learning can boost brain health.

The video lesson highlight the the three types of bilingual brains that exist and how attitudes to bilingualism have devloped over time. In the 1960s, the lesson states, bilingualism was seen as a ‘handicap’ that could hamper a child’s development but now we know the exact opposite is true. Even where budding bilinguals could sometimes show a delay in response times in language tests the extra mental effort stimulation the ‘dorsolateral prefrontal cortex’, the part of the brain that plays a large role in executive function, problem solving, task switching and focussing while filtering out irrelevant information.

There are differences bilingual brain that can be analysed using brain imaging technology. Language processing involves functions of both the brain’s left hemisphere (dominant and analytical in logical processes) and right hemisphere (active in emotional and social processes). The ‘critical period hypothesis’ suggests people who learned a second language early in life have a holistic grasp of its social and emotional contexts and those who learn another language in adulthood show less of an emotional bias and a more rational approach.

Bilingualism can maintain the health of people of all ages.

Bilingualism can maintain the health of people of all ages.

‘While a balanced bilingual has near equal abilities across the board in two languages, most bilinguals around the world know and use their languages in varying proportions,’ says Nacamulli.

Bilingualism therefore is much more than something that makes traveling of business easier, or something that enables access to a wider range of culture bit plays a big role in brain health.

Bilingual people can be classified into three general types of brains:

  • compound bilingual
  • coordinate bilingual
  • subordinate bilingual

Compound bilinguals developed two linguistic codes simultaneously. For instances, learning English and Spanish has you begin to process the world in a bilingual environment.

Coordinate bilinguals juggle two sets of concepts. For example, learning English at school while speaking their native tongue at home or with family.

Subordinate bilinguals learn a secondary language by filtering it through their primary language.

Whichever category someone falls into, a bilingual brain contains a higher density of gray matter, which contains most of the brain’s neurons and synapses. Using a second language also leads to more activity in certain brain regions, giving it ‘excercise’. The TED-Ed video suggests this can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia.

A 2014 study published in the journal Brain and Language found people who speak more than one language are better at filtering out unnecessary words than monolinguals. The brains of those who only knew one language had to work harder to complete the same mental tasks. The researchers believe this is because being bilingual is a constant brain exercise.

‘Bilingualism may not necessarily make you smarter,’ states the lesson, ‘but it can keep your brain healthy and active.’

So whether you are a lifelong bilingual or an adult language learner, there are plenty of health benefits.

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Celebrities speaking other languages

We’re used to US and British-based superstars speaking English. But here are some celebrities who are bilingual, or at least pretty fluent, in other languages.

Can you think of any other good ones to add?

Here’s Colin Firth being interviewed in italian

Mila Kunis’s Russian language interview in Moscow

The Fantastic Four’s Ioan Gruffudd speaking Welsh

Kim Cattrall speaking fluent German

Rhys Ifans talking about poet Dylan Thomas in Welsh

Natalie Portman speaks Hebrew

Here’s Charlize Theron speaking Afrikaans with a Dutch speaking Belgian reporter…

Jodie Foster’s French interview

Singer Shakira manages to speak five different languages:

Ex-Liverpool and Real Madrid footballer Steve McManaman speaking ‘scouse’ Spanish.

Cillian Murphy acting in Irish Gaelic

Sandra Bullock speaking in German

Five ways to boost your bilingual learning environment

Creating a great bilingual learning environment for your children can take a little bit of work and creativity but it needn’t be a chore. Here are some ways we used to keep three languages ticking over.

1. Ensure both languages are spoken at home

This may sound painfully obvious but it’s surprising how many bilingual families start conversing in one language. The ‘one parent, one language’ (OPOL) strategy is a good one as it ensures children interact in both language throughout the day.

Join local language groups or start one yourself!

Join local language groups or start one yourself!

2. Connect with others locally

Unless you live in a very remote area chances are there are language exchanges, parent groups, and playgroups in your town and city. Our children go to a Spanish-speaking playgroup most weeks and a French family meet-up too. If you can’t find anything going on locally, why not start something with likeminded individuals by posting notices on social media or local advertising boards? By interacting with others that speak the language outside the immediate family, the language will seem more ‘real’ and alive.

3. Use media media in the other language

Find books, music, radio and films in the other language and make sure they are easily available to enjoy. Our children enjoy watching unique Spanish and French cartoons but on YouTube we can find British favourites like the ubiquitous Peppa Pig dubbed into those languages too.

Video conferencing with friends and family overseas can really help!

Video conferencing with friends and family overseas can really help!

4. Exploit technology to connect with friends and family overseas

Webcams and Skype are a brilliant way to interact with friends and family overseas. Our kids love to talk on Skype with their Aunt and Grandmother and sometimes Spanish-speaking friends in the USA. Skype can be a great tool when there are no speakers of the second language in your locality.

5. Explore Apps and computer software

For better or worse, our children love to use an iPad and, like some tech-skeptical parents, it’s something I’m not too concerned by as I’ve discovered all sorts of beautiful interactive story books and educational games that they really enjoy.

How do you keep language alive at home? Let us know in the comments

Numbers of UK students choosing Modern Foreign Language degrees decline

UK students choosing to take a language degree has fallen to its lowest level in a decade. A report by the the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) found the number of students being accepted onto full-time modern language courses slumped by 22% between the academic years 2010-11 and 2012-13.

While there was a strong 8% recovery in the numbers of students entering full-time undergraduate courses in 2013-14, full-time undergraduate modern foreign language entrant numbers are in decline. However, modern foreign languages were the most popular subjects in 2012-13 for UK students pursuing their studies in France and Germany.

Fewer UK students are choosing to take Modern foreign languages

Fewer UK students are choosing to take Modern foreign languages

Declines in full-time first degree entrants is also seen in joint honours degrees, where a modern foreign language is coupled with an area of study that is not a modern foreign language. Numbers of entrants to such courses fell by 22% between 2010-11 and 2012-13, continuing earlier declines.

Despite this decline, at secondary level the government says it is keen to promote modern languages as vital subjects. The Independent reports on a shake-up by Education Secretary Michael Gove, that will see students studying modern languages encouraged to speak the language more with all questions will be posed in the foreign language they are studying. More weight will be given to pupils’ speaking skills , with 25 per cent of GCSE marks awarded to that, and 25 per cent awarded for listening and responding.

Why modern foreign language enrolments at University is an interesting question. With global borders evermore open, language skills are increasingly vital. However, there is some evidence that employability merely arising from a, say, a French degree is not as strong a non-languagecourse and developing a strong fluency in a second language via other routes.

Is the decline in modern languages as degree level subjects worrying or should more emphasis by placing on languages at primary or second level so more young people have strong language skills at 18?

Tell us what you think.

Discoveries after 4 years of raising bilingual children

My eldest daughter, Martha, as just turned four and her sister, Malena, has just turned two. Both children have existed in a multilingual environment from day one. Martha speaks English and Spanish to more of less equal fluency and fully understands French, with a much lesser propensity to use it.

Looking back over the last four years, these are the discoveries I’ve found most interesting.

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain...

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain…

1. Being bilingual or multilingual did not significantly ‘stunt’ the age at which language was acquired. Some friends of Martha’s monolingual friends were very quick talkers so for a brief period I wondered but, looking at a wider selection of children, I realised she was just more average rather than precocious. And, of course, she was learning two languages. Malena, by contrast, is very much a ‘quick talker’ and frequently shocks us with the surprisingly elaborate utterances she sometimes produces in English, Spanish and even French. The important thing to note is that children develop at their own pace.

2. Bilingualism makes kids happy! It’s important to note that our approach to raising bilingual children has been about ‘exposing not imposing’. Through a mix of conscious language use in the home, attending play groups and social gatherings conducted in other languages, use of books, media and technology we have attempted to create a lively multilingual environment with no ‘drilling’ of language into the kids. Martha now wants to learn to and write, and is seeking support from us. Children are natural, avid learners and I feel that trying to force learning onto them merely interferes with their natural curiosity. She’s also asking a lot of ‘scientific’ questions so by using our small garden and books about the planets as illustrations I am trying to answer them.

3. Learning a THIRD language has worked. Lidia’s native tongue is Spanish but she also speaks English and French to a near-native level of fluency. She introduced French too from day one and Martha attends a French-speaking nursery school. I have to admit this was something I watched carefully. Would a third language be just too much? Would she be ‘lost’ or stressed by the French school? As it turned out it merely means that she fully understands French language – we believe as well as English and Spanish. Until recently she hadn’t uttered much French with us but is increasingly communicating in French with people she identifies as French speakers. In other words, she can identify the language of and English, Spanish or French speaker and speak the appropriate language, albeit with less ability in the third language. This is remarkable to me.

4. The children have a full and proper relationship with their Spanish extended family. Both girls talk more than once a week with their Aunt and Grandmother on Skype and when Martha visits Madrid she can talk to children she meets like a Spanish native speaker. It would have been terrible to have cut her off linguistically from all this by delaying language learning until later when it then has to be taught rather than acquired naturally.

5. My Spanish has improved and I’ve even picked up a fair amount of French. It was an eye opener one day when Martha asked me for something in Spanish and I had to quickly Google the word for a translation! She’s quickly outpaced my rather intermediate semi-fluent Spanish and I feel the need to keep up.

6. The kids already have a very global outlook. From birth the girls have existed in a multilingual and multicultural environment and know about other countries, different languages. It’s a world away from when I was a kid (I was probably 18 before I had a conversation with someone from the North of England) and I think the girls will definitely be much richer for it.

Speaking in Tongues documentary challenges America to think differently about bilingualism

While in multilingual Europe people tend to see fluency in more than one language a distinct advantage, in some countries it can be a political hot potato. Nowhere is this truer than in the United States, where the growth of Spanish speaking in particular has proven controversial.

It’s a common idea that a single official language glues a nation together and that exploring other languages might somehow undermines this. Even progressively-minded people sometimes assume that encouraging bilingualism to flourish among immigrant groups will leave them marginalised and socially disadvantaged. Yet the makers of documentary Speaking in Tongues uncover something very different.

For example, language learning has a positive effect on intellectual growth and cognitive development, improving a child’s understanding of his/her native language and that students in language immersion programs learn to read, write, speak, and listen in English just as well or better as students in all-English programs.

The film begins with an ordinary first day of public school kindergarten – expect the teacher speaks only Chinese to primarily white and Asian American students. They are taking part in a language immersion class, where they receive 90% of their instruction in Cantonese. While this might sound gruelling, the children are clearly curious and enjoying themselves and, remarkably, their school will test first in English and mathematics among the district’s 76 elementary schools.

“Sometimes a small idea has big implications” say the film’s directors Marcia Jarmel & Ken Schneider in a statement. “Consider America’s resolute commitment to remaining an “English only” nation. It turns out that our attitudes about language reflect much bigger concerns: that language is a metaphor for the barriers that come between neighbors, be they across the street or around the world. Our idea in making Speaking in Tongues was to showcase a world where these communication barriers are being addressed.”

Speaking in Tongues follows the linguistic journey of four students: Durrell is a 2nd grader at Starr King Elementary where and his classmates are already reading and writing in Mandarin. 7th grader at Alice Fong Yu Alternative School, Kelly Wong reads and writes both Cantonese and Mandarin. Jason, is maintaining a great grades in middle school, testing above grade level in both English and Spanish. Julian is a sophomore at Lowell High School where he is currently taking the highest level of Chinese offered in the school district. There stories all reveal the potential strength of a multilingual America.

People in the USA can rent the Speaking in Tongues documentary online via Amazon Prime here: Speaking in Tongues (Home/Personal/Nonprofessional Use Only)

To learn more about the documentary, to arrange a screening, visit:

http://speakingintonguesfilm.info

What are iGCSEs and why can they help bilingual families?

iGCSEs are becoming increasingly popular in UK-based bilingual families as a way to gain a language qualification earlier than 16 or as an additional subject outside the school system.

Typically bilingual children are more than capable of passing a GCSE examination earlier or in a language not typically offered by schools. iGSCEs (‘International’ GCSEs) can help by allowing subjects to be studied at home instead.

Books tailored to iGCSE language exams are increasingly common.

Books tailored to iGCSE language exams are increasingly common.

The iGCSE is the world’s most popular international qualification for 14 to 16 year olds and is frequently used in schools overseas with education systems derived from the UK’s or in private international schools used by ex-pats. Like any other GCSE, it is recognised by universities and employers worldwide. The iGSCE is also popular with children that are homeschooled or privately tutored.

Cambridge International Examinations is a major provider of iGCSEs. They offer qualifications in over 70 subjects available at Cambridge IGCSE and 30 of these are languages.

For many of these languages it is possible to either complete the course as a native speaker or as a foreign language learner, so useful for bilingual children who either fancy a challenge or who simply want to convert their second language into an ‘extra GCSE’ easily by choosing the foreign language option.

Although designed for schools, as they are exam-based and do not include coursework, iGCSEs are ideal for home schooling and distance learning. They are ideal for anyone seeking a qualification without having to attend full or part-time classes.

As the iGCSE is assessed by examinations it is often considered to be similar in style to the older O-Levels qualification than to the current GCSE in England, and current government Education Minister, Michael Gove has encouraged more mainstream UK schools to offer them on the basis that examinations are more ‘rigourous’ than courses with a large coursework component.

Remember, the iGCSE itself is merely an examination and qualification. The student will need to follow the syllabus by themselves, perhaps with the aid of their parents, or work with a tutor. If this is a problem there are an increasing number of online distance learning courses from a variety of providers that use the iGCSE and books to guide you through the topics needed to pass.

Are you currently working towards a iGCSE language qualification with your children? Let us know how you’re getting on in the comments.

Bendigedig! Bilingual Welsh eBooks hit the iPad

The big-selling Apple iPad is becoming an increasingly popular way of delivering fun language learning and now Savvy Books and Parthian Books have teamed up to create a new series of bilingual Welsh-English children’s eBooks.

The series helps young readers and their parents share in the joy of learning the Welsh language together. The first eBook, Wedi Dy Weld Di! – Found You Rabbit!, is currently available for download from Apple’s iBookstore. The book is specifically designed for the iPad but will also work on an iPhone or iPod Touch, with a free sample of a few pages available to try before you buy.

Savvy Books’ founder David Clarke said: “Matching the sight of the written word to the sound of the spoken word is fundamental to learning any language. What is so exciting about interactive eBooks is they let family members gain confidence by learning at their own pace, repeating words and sentences as often as needed.”

This book is a fun way for children and parents to learn Welsh together.

This book is a fun way for children and parents to learn Welsh together.

The book was written and illustrated by Hayley Acreman and translated by Welsh author and broadcaster Elinor Wyn Reynolds. It presents an engaging story about two best-friends, Rabbit and Duck, and their adventures in the countryside.

David Clarke from Savvy explains: “All eBooks in the Welsh Alive series highlight each individual word on the screen in perfect synchronization with the audio narration. Any word can be repeated just by tapping on it, and readers can switch back-and-forth between Welsh and English at any time. These are powerful language-learning features for both children and adults.”

The iBook can be downloaded here:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/wedi-dy-weld-di!-found-you/id670891399?mt=11

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