A Tour Of The British Isles in accents

The sheer number of accents in the British Isles often confuses England language learners. Actually, it quite often confuses native speakers too – I sometimes had a hard time understanding Glaswegian taxi drivers.

In this YouTube clip Google Maps-generated video is set to speech from from a BBC Radio 4 programme featuring expert dialect coach, Andrew Jack.

If you’re British, now accurate do think they are? If you have English as a second language, did any confuse you?

Ten amazing facts about bilingualism

Wondering whether it’s worth raising a child bilingually? Here are some amazing facts about the benefits of speaking more than one language.

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1. Bilingualism actually grows grey matter!

In the recent past, parents and teachers assumed that teaching children to another language at an early an age would delay their language skills and somehow stunt their overall intellectual growth. It was quite common to find children with foreign mothers or fathers who had not made any particular effort to immediately pass on their language to their English-speaking children. Indeed, by own mother did not teach my Welsh, despite growing up bilingual herself, which, with hindsight is a bit of a shame. As scientific research progresses, however, it is increasingly clear than bilingual children reach major language milestones at broadly the same age as monolingual children. Moreover, science is discovering that learning that speaking more than one language may have cognitive benefits childhood through to old age, keeping the mind youthful and lessening senility. Even brain scans reveal a greater density of grey matter in areas of the brain associated with language processing in people who learned a second language under the age of five. (Mechelli A., et al. Nature. Oct. 14,(2004).

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2. Bilingualism can help to ward off the mental ageing process

It’s long been understand that actively exercising the brain can ward can help people to remain sharper in old age and lessen the effects of senility. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, bilinguals exercise their brains automatically as they switch from one language to another. According to one study, the onset of dementia was delayed by 4 years in bilinguals compared to monolinguals with dementia. (Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. (2011). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A handbook on bilingualism & second language learning.)

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3. Bilingualism is increasingly common in today’s world.

People are more likely than ever to live in a country other than where they were born and where another language is spoken. As you’d expect English is the most popular second language of all but did you know that now people who speak english fluently as a second language outnumber native speakers?

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4. Bilingual children do better in education
Being bilingual may give children an advantage at school. Bilingual children have been shown to be better than their monolingual peers at focusing on a task while tuning out distractions. This seemingly enhanced ability to concentrate has also been found in bilingual adults, especially those who became fluent in two languages at an early age. It is thought that being able to filter things out when switching language enhances the brain’s ability to focus and ignore irrelevant information.

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5. Bilingual children do NOT often struggle with ‘language confusion’

Ever met an adult who could barely talk because he or she was a ‘bilingual child’? Of course not! Some parents may choose to use the “one parent-one language” approach, where each parent speaks a different language to the child. However, even in culture that are naturally bilingual and children may hear family members frequently switching languages confusion does not occur. While children may ‘code mix’ to an extent they soon learn to separate out the languages.

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6. Bilinguals are not always equally proficient in both languages

Most bilinguals, whatever their sage, are not equally proficient in both languages, and will have a ‘dominant language’ The dominant language is usually influenced by the majority language of the society in which the individual lives and can change several times – for example if a person moves country where their second language is spoken, or changes to a job where they need to use it much more, they may after a while feel more proficient in the other language.

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7. You can still learn a language as an adult!

Many people feel they cannot learn a new language when they reach a certain age. Countless studies reveal that while our ability to hear and understand a second language becomes more difficult with age, the adult brain can be retrained to pick up foreign sounds more easily again. According to research by UCL, the difficulties that adults have in learning languages are not biological, but perceptual. Given the right stimuli, then, even adult brains can overcome the habits they have developed to effectively crowd out certain sounds and learn new ones. Moreover, while the effects are not as pronounced as with people that learned a second language from an early age, learning a language in adulthood can stimulate and protect the brain into old age.

8. Bilingual promotes all areas of cognitive functioning.

It’s not just in language processing that bilinguals have an advantage. Mastering two languages helps bilingual children them solve logic problems and multi-task more effectively. Dr. Kuhl, in research carried out at the University of Washington, says bilingual babies “more cognitively flexible” than monolingual infants. Her research group examines baby brains with an even newer imaging device, magnetoencephalography, or MEG, which combines an M.R.I. scan with a recording of magnetic field changes as the brain transmits information.

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9. Bilinguals are better listeners
Perhaps because they are used to differentiating between two or more languages, studies have shown that all foreign language learners develop on average better listening skills than monolingual peers.

glocal languages

10. Bilingualism encourages people to think globally

Speaking more than one language from an early age introduces the idea that the world is a diverse place with different languages and cultures to explore.

Image of The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents

Image of Raising a Bilingual Child (Living Language Series)

Lifelong bilingualism keeps you youthful say scientists

New research from the University of Kentucky suggests older people that have been bilingual throughout their life show greater cognitive ability in old age, using less energy when performing cognitive flexibility tasks.

Older people who have spoken two languages throughout life can switch from one task to another more quickly, according to the study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals show different patterns of brain activity when switching tasks.

bilingual brain

Lifelong bilingualism is good for your brain says new research.

It suggests a value in regular stimulating mental activity throughout life. As we get older, the ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected circumstances and related “executive” functions decline. Lifelong bilingualism may help to reduce the decline due to the mental excercise gained by regular language-switching. This new research highlights how brain activity differs between older bilinguals and monolinguals.

Brian T. Gold, PhD and team at the University of Kentucky, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of healthy older bilinguals (aged 60-68) with that of healthy monolingual older people as they completed tasks to text cognitive flexibility. The found both groups performed the task accurately but bilinguals were faster at completing the task, expending less energy in the frontal cortex – an area scientists know is involved in task-switching.

“This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively stimulating activity… and brain function,” said John L. Woodard, PhD, an expert in ageing from Wayne State University, who was not involved with the study. “The authors provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals.”

TResearchers also measured the brain activity of younger bilingual and monolingual adults while they performed the cognitive flexibility task. Overall, they were faster at performing the task. Being bilingual did not affect task performance or brain activity in young participants. By contrast, older bilinguals performed the task faster than their monolingual peers.

Previous science has shown younger people are faster at switching and require less brain power. Bilingual older adults displayed significantly faster reaction times than their peers, much closer to the young participants. The brain is known to shrink with age but there seemed to be no difference in mass between older bilinguals and monolingual so the effect is not structural but likely creative by regular mental exercise.

The researchers also measured the brain activity of younger bilingual and monolingual adults while they performed the cognitive flexibility task.Overall, the young adults were faster than the seniors at performing the task. Being bilingual did not affect task performance or brain activity in the young participants. In contrast, older bilinguals performed the task faster than their monolingual peers and expended less energy in the frontal parts of their brain.

“This suggests that bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors,” Gold said. “Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging.”

It is unclear if older adult language learners can also gain some of the benefits enjoyed by lifelong bilinguals but as the effect seems to be born out of mental exercise rather than structural changes it surely can help. Indeed, other form of research has suggested exercising your brain, by whatever method, keeps it healthy.

Bilingualism increases mental agility says new research

A large amount of scientific data points to the benefits of growing up bilingual and fresh research from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland reinforces this view.

The study, published in the Journal of Bilingualism, found that bilingual children outperform monolingual children in problem-solving skills and creative thinking. Researchers examined primary school pupils who spoke English or Italian, half of whom also spoke Gaelic or Sardinian, and found that bilingual children were significantly more successful in tasks set for them.

A total of 121 children around the age of 9 in Scotland and Sardinia, 62 of them bilingual, were given tasks where they need to reproduce patterns of coloured blocks, repeat a series of numbers, to give definitions of words and resolve mentally a set of arithmetic problems. Tasks were all set in English or Italian.

New research suggest bilingualism benefits mental agility.

New research suggest bilingualism benefits mental agility.

Differences in performance between the groups were linked to the mental alertness required to switch between languages, which could develop skills useful in other types of thinking. The Gaelic-speaking children were even more successful than their Sardinian counterparts, which may have been due to the formal teaching of the language and literature. Sardinian is not widely taught in schools.

Dr Fraser Lauchlan, of Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences & Health, led the research. He said: “Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them.

“Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem solving and enabling children to think creatively. We also assessed the children’s vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils.

“We also found they had an aptitude for selective attention- the ability to identify and focus on information which is important, while filtering out what is not- which could come from the ‘code-switching’ of thinking in two different languages.”

Is ‘one parent, one language’ the gold standard for bilingual families?

One most popular, if not the most popular, ‘method’ for rasing bilingual children is ‘one parent, one language’ (OPOL). Generally speaking it’s important to be consistent with the language in which one speaks to a child, especially when children are just beginning to talk – ie. Mum speaks Spanish, Dad English.

It means the child learns to distinguish between the languages spoken at home, and out in the real world. It’s a method that, broadly, we’ve followed with our daughter. Even at age two and a half we clearly notice that she uses much more Spanish in Spnish environments, much more English in English ones.

Don't negate vocabluary

Reinforcing the ‘correctness’ of vocabluary in the other language can be beneficial.

Consistency is important to know where they are with their language. However, there are times when deviating from the rule if the other parent is at least partially skilled in both languages. Say for example, the child is asking/telling you ‘es una fresa?’ (it’s a strawberry) it’s probably better to answer, ‘Si, es una fresa. In English it’s a strawberry. Fresa en espanol. Strawberry in English’.

Doing this does not negate the original utterance (simply saying it’s a strawberry might leave the child thinking they were mistaken). It reinforces it.

There are other situations were a modest deviation from the one parent, one language rule can be helpful and not a hinderance. In some families parents may communicate in just one language all the time. In others they may effectively mix and match between to languages. It generally isn’t important to the child which language or languages parents are speaking to one another. There is certainly no reason to standardise a language when speaking in front of the children. In fact, it’s probably helpful if ‘family discussions’ can and do take part in either language at different times as this means one language is not relegated to second-class status.

Tower of Babel

Children are naturally skilled at differentiating between different languages. Many societies are naturally multilingual. Childrens’ brains don’t explode.

Sometimes of course a child just simply understands a concept better in the other language and for the sake of getting them to get the message the other parent may switch languages. This is not going to do much harm. Probably less harm than the children sticking their fingers in an electrical socket or running into a busy road!

What’s more important for the child’s language development is plenty of quality interaction with parent that speaks language one and the parent that speaks language two. That’s where it really makes a difference and where consistency helps, especially when out and about. The parents should continue speaking their own language to the child, otherwise one language risks being relegated to the ‘wierd home language’.

While you will read a lot of information about the terrible dangers of ‘language’ mixing, don’t sweat it. In some multilingual societies languages are mixed and blended and contorted into a huge cacophony and children still manage to cope just fine. The one parent one language rule is a good rule of thumb, a good foundation or starting point, but you’ll soon learn works for you in your own unqiue family setting. Good luck!

MacSpeech Dictate dictation software for Mac

MacSpeech is pretty incredible software.

We’ve been blogging about how children acquire languages but recently my Apple Macintosh has been also starting to understand words of itself, thanks to MacSpeech Dictate.

MacSpeech dictate is current-generation voice recognition software that listens to your voice and prints your words to the screen. This type of technology has been around for ten years or more but in the early days was more of a gimmick – it made so many errors that even a slow typist may as well have entered the text by hand.

MacSpeech dictate is different however and truly credible way to get words into a computer quickly. You need to spell out things like punctuation, which can slow you down, but when talking in general prose this method is as fast as the best touch-typists.

Before you start using the software you pass through a brief training exercise that simply involves reading text on the screen. This is so MacSpeech can calibrate itself to your voice and individual way of speaking. It continues to learn when you start using it and you can add additional vocabulary, which is useful for specific jargon, brand names and the like.

It also has a practical purpose as M likes to sit on my knee when I work on the computer. With one arm wrapped around baby and a knee jiggling for entertainment I clearly can’t type. MacSpeech solves that problem and, with the supplied headset, doesn’t often get thrown even by the occasional yelps and babbles from baby.

This entire blog speech was written using MacSpeech. If you’re a slow typists or don’t always have the luxury of having both hands free, it’s worth checking out.

Baby: Don’t know a language? Make one up!

Language can take many forms.

Our sixth month old baby, M, might not know any Spanish or English words yet but that’s not stopping her from developing a language of her own.

For the first few brief months it’s hard to know what baby wants. Food? A clean nappy? A hug? Entertainment? Papa’s bad guitar playing? From this age they start developing their own system of utterances, screams, grunts and sign language to at least get a few things across.

Some bits of ‘baby language’ are pretty obvious. Early on, M would be in Papa’s arms but would often wriggle in the direction of Mama to suggest she be handed over for a change of scenary or boob (and because Mama’s probably just better all-round). Now she just outstretches an arm in that direction, perhaps adding a few grunts for emphasis. Another signal is the one for ‘pick me up’. She’s used to being plucked off the floor by her armpits, so will adopt a ‘parachutist’ pose, with armpits raised when that’s what she wants.

So, babies will happily make up language any which way they can to make their point. We all do. When I reach the limit of my Spanish with a Spanish speaker, I may gesture or mime or imitate a sound and usually the message will be understood and communication can continue. Still, when a baby does it, it seems pretty clever. No one’s taught them how to do it. It’s innate.

With M increasingly mobile and able to commando crawl across the carpet like a pro, we’ve had to invest in her first playpen, which we’ve dubbed ‘baby gaol’. We’ve only given her short bursts of it as we don’t want her to turn against it (she still has a few problems with going to sleep in her cot, making a huge fuss, even if clearly exhausted). She quite quickly cottoned on to where the gate of the pen was located, pawing at the hinge and lower latch as if trying to figure out an escape before falling back on the ‘pick me up’ signal.

Her babbling is increasingly coherent in the sense it sounds more like proper talking than ever before. It’s easy to hear real words in there – I’m sure I got ‘Daddy’ the other day, although it was undoutedly a fluke. One day an obvious, bona fide real word will leap out, though. I wonder if it will be in Spanish or English?

Michael Gove to put languages centre stage with English Baccalaureate?

UK Education Minister Michael Gove has suggested plans to create what he calls an ‘English baccalaureate’. It will be a certificate awarded to pupils who pass five or more GCSEs at grade C or higher and must including English, maths, science, a humanties subject and, significantly, a foreign language.

His idea intention is to encourage student to take a broad range of subjects and to firm up traditional ‘solid’ subjects, which have allegedly been downplayed at GCSE and A Level as schools have sought to encourage students into easier options more likely to yield higher grades and make exam tables look good. Science and languages have been especially badly hit as students see that as harder graft and don’t wish to jeopardise their chances of landing enough grades to progress to the next level.

Languages could be given higher priority by the government.

Michael Gove is a fan of the popular International Baccalaureate, an alternative qualification to A Levels that is offered by more and more schools and sixth form colleges.

To my mind it’s a step in the right direction. Pupils at 16 should have a broad education and not be prematurely specialised. Compulsory languages should never have been dropped by the last government. However, it’s not really a true baccalaureate in the continental mould, more a why to shoehorn the existing exam into a fresh idea that it doesn’t really fit. It allows an el cheapo quick fix with a new buzzword but does nothing to tackle falling standards, rapid grade inflation, and the underachievement of boys nor will it tackle the low standards of literacy among students who have achieved high grades. It’ll be the same old GCSEs with students pushed a little harder to ensure a broad mix – something many schools do anyway, especially with brighter pupils.

Gove, then, does not appear to want to tackle the English exam system head on and introduce real reform. However, the English baccalaureate will place languages back on the agenda in mainstream education, and schools, now faced with putting all students through a language GCSE will want to channel more resources into the subjects. That can only be a good thing.

Confessions of a monolingual Brit

Flying the flag for monolingualism?

I’d never learned a foreign language until I started French at 11 years old. My Mother spoke both English and Welsh but had never taught me the celtic language, although she had helped me to read and write in English from a young age.

British monolingualism

Most people would love to learn another language to full fluency.

My introduction to French was not a happy one. The teacher, a French native, seemed to quickly latch on to the fact that a handful to children in the class had attended a local Catholic private school before attending my state comprehensive and already knew some French. It felt as if she was teaching to their higher level and I was quickly left behind and assumed I had no ability in the subject. I was of the first generation where very little English grammar is taught to students, and although I knew my way around a verb, a noun and an adjective, it all seemed more complex in French.

Even so, I liked the subject far more than German, which I began at the same time. The school did not have a culture of trying to push students forward. You just existed at the level to which you naturally settled – high flyer, middler or struggler. As a poor, humble 11 year old from the sticks that had barely met anyone from the North let alone another country, France seemed a remote and ultimately meaningless place and no one was really selling it to me.

When it came to GCSEs the school was very keen on every student taking a modern language so I naturally took French, despite being at a much lower level than I was in the humanities or sciences. My GCSE teacher, a Scot, was a revelation and, for a short time, I suddenly became enthusiastic for learning a language, although as I felt so far behind was not up for the hard graft needed to get back on track and only ended up with a poor grade (possibly made a grade worse by severe hayfever during the exam, to offer a feeble excuse).

In adulthood I toyed with learning other languages, usually spurred on by a foreign friend or enjoying the cinema of a given nation or culture but it was only meeting my future Spanish wife that I managed to finally pick up a language to an intermediate proficiency.

I attended a two week intensive Spanish course at one of the many private language schools in Madrid and was amazed just how fast you can absorb fresh knowledge. The ‘intermediate level’ course wasn’t expensive but the two young tutors were skilled, professional teachers that seemed to live and breathe the language and could communicate enthusiasm as well as complex conjugations.

The experience made me wonder why language learning seemed so hard in school? How can it be possible to attend lessons at school for five years and still have huge craters in your knowledge? Why is language learning such a turn off for so many kids at school, with fewer students taking modern language GCSEs and A Levels at a time when so many adults are keen to learn, with huge sales of language learning books and software, and good language tutors in constant demand?

Anyway, with a bilingual baby bouncing through her first year, I probably need a fresh kick up the backside to take my Spanish to the next level. Lidia’s family do not speak English at all, so it’s my Spanish or nothing. I wouldn’t want mother and daughter to have a top secret special language in which to discuss Papa.

Being a new Dad, six months on

Six months on the pace of baby M’s development is astonishing. She’s suprisingly agile and athletic – don’t know where she gets that from – and now just starting to ‘commando crawl’ a little. Arms are longer and able to grab at more objects. We need to be much more vigilant now but she’s now so much more interactive and aware.

She’s superfun and you can begin to teach her silly skills like how to shake a maraca or drum on the tabletop. A reading session with a simple book will hold her attention for quite some time and she’ll stroke the pages and point at the images.

Actually becoming a Dad, while giving a big sense of responsibility, is not quite as stressful as I thought it might be. There’s too much goofy nonsense to entertain us going on, too much outright fun. The only sad thing is having to go to work when M’s at her most energetic and delightful.


M’s just enjoyed her first experience of Spain and the searing summer heat of Madrid. I’m not sure whether her latin genes will make her a sun-seeker or her celtic genes a sun-avoider but she did suffer a little, poor mite.

Although Mama has been speaking to her in Spanish from day one, the rapid faster-and-faster conversations of people in Madrid clearly confused her – as people spoke there was a curious look on her face. She stopped her periodic babbling sessions as if unable to mimic her Spanish relatives like she could her British ones.

The famed latin love of children is no myth. Everyone we met wanted to have a hold of M and she was passed round half the barrio on numerous occasions. That she didn’t seem to mind – loads of extra attention and fun. It’s when everyone’s left the room that the grizzles start. He much older cousins took to a huge shine her and she repaid one by yanking a dangling earring as hard as she could – a hand she can yank with some force now.

Spain was an opportunity to pick up some Spanish children’s books, DVDs and music and she’s certainly enjoying a DVD of Spanish Children’s songs. I’m not sure the telly should be used to babysit a 5-6 month old, but, heck – it’s a way to add in more Spanish back in the UK.

Lidia has hooked up with various bilingual new mums back at home. M has little half-German, half-Russian, half-French chums to interact with. Lidia’s also met some parents who homeschool their children. Foreign people – whether Spanish, French, Polish – who have had any experience of UK state education at all seem quite stunned by the low standards, the lack of respect, the bullying. Poor education seems another ‘UK special’ along with excessive prices for key living costs and binge drinking. It seems foreign parents would have no problem sending their children to the nearest school back home, but here want to homeschool or, if funds allows, go private. It’s rather sad.

It’s a few years off, but the benefits of homeschooling seem to grow bigger in our minds the more we think about it. As there are many networks of homeschooling parents and kids, the detractor’s main argument against it – that children become isolated from their peers – is meaningless. In fact, homeschooled kids seem to interact regularly with a far wider cross section of the community, rather than be couped up in arbitrary age groups.

In terms of bilingual learning, we’ve largely used the ‘one parent, one language’ method with M so far, although I’ll quite often use my intermediate Spanish with her just for fun and because, living in England, M will get plenty of opportunity to hear English spoken. It’s also an opportunity and an incentive to improve my Spanish and take it to the next level. Surely all I need to is stay one grammatical conjugation ahead of the kid, right?