Foreign or second language learning through craft

Craft with bilingual childrenThe secret of learning a language is that there is no “secret”, basically a language is a tool for communication, and the best way to learn it and practice it is communicating. However, this can be difficult on a day to day basis, especially if both parents and children are busy with work, school, after school clubs and their social lives. So, this is when we really need our imagination and crafty hands to come up with interesting and fun activities that don’t look too much like “school” work. [Read more...]

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.

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.

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.