Learning a second language is good childhood mind medicine, studies find

May 13, 2009 By Susan Lang
Kamal de Abrew, Cornell Ph.D. '81, and a professor at the American National College in Sri Lanka, tests a child in the Sinhala language. Image: James Gair

(PhysOrg.com) -- Teaching young children how to speak a second language is good for their minds, report two Cornell linguistic researchers.

Learning a second language does not cause language confusion, language delay or cognitive deficit, which have been concerns in the past. In fact, according to studies at the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL), who learn a second language can maintain attention despite outside stimuli better than children who know only one language.

That's important, say Barbara Lust, a and linguistics expert, professor of human development and director of CLAL, and her collaborator, Sujin Yang, former postdoctoral research associate at the lab, because that ability is "responsible for selective and conscious cognitive processes to achieve goals in the face of distraction and plays a key role in academic readiness and success in school settings."

In other words, "Cognitive advantages follow from becoming bilingual," Lust says. "These cognitive advantages can contribute to a child's future academic success."

The most effective way to learn a second language, they say, is to put the young child in situations where the second language surrounds them. "We find that children learning a second language in an immersion setting show an overall success rate of grammatical knowledge similar to English monolinguals," says Yang, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto at Scarborough and at York University in Toronto.

And the earlier that a child learns a second language, they say, the more likely the child will more quickly attain nativelike language proficiency.

Lust has been exploring language acquisition in young children for more than 30 years, across more than 20 different languages and cultures, studying which aspects of language acquisition are biologically endowed and which are learned, when and how language acquisition begins and how multiple language acquisition affects cognitive development in children.

"One of the greatest feats of human development is learning language," says Lust. It's remarkable, she says, "how well equipped children are, beginning at birth, to accomplish the complex task of learning language."

For five years, Lust has been exploring the effects of bilingualism in young children with Yang, who led a series of studies with children of 3 to 6 years of age and comparison adults. The two have co-authored several papers.

"This collection of multilingualism projects, along with many research results from other labs across the world, affirms that children can learn more than one language, and they will even do so naturally if surrounded by the languages. The mystery of first-language acquisition is intensified when we realize that a child can and does naturally acquire more than one language at once," says Lust, a founding member of the National Science Foundation-funded Virtual Center for the study of Language Acquisition (VCLA), which integrates research findings from such diverse fields as linguistics, developmental and experimental psychology, and neuroscience from around the country and the world.

In the CLAL, in conjunction with the VCLA and with Yang, Lust and her colleagues are also looking at longitudinal case studies of several acquiring English for the first time at 3 years of age through immersion in local nursery schools.

Tips to teach a child a second language

• Surround the child with more than one language through conversations and social groups using different languages; the earlier the better.
• Maintain home (heritage) language when a second language is being learned outside the home.
• Expose children to multilingual settings and give them plenty of opportunities to play with children who speak the second .
• Provide fun and interactive language-learning environments (e.g., music, dance and film) in both languages, and often with children of similar age.
• Promote reading and storytelling in multiple languages.
• Maintain a positive attitude toward languages and cultures children learn.

Provided by Cornell University (news : web)

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User comments : 7

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docknowledge
1 / 5 (2) May 13, 2009
First, we have recent PhysOrg articles claiming, respectively that that: 1) You can be successful and intelligent by using Facebook and 2) Facebook use decreases academic performance.

Now, we have professional language teachers saying what they've been saying for decades: learning (languages) is good for academic performance. But wait, they don't mean better than spending that time on Facebook, do they?? Or do they just mean it's time better spent than studying science? Or, gee what exactly do they mean?
docknowledge
3 / 5 (3) May 13, 2009
I should have completed my thought. This is an example of how completely biased scientific studies can be. Of course language professionals are going to look for results that indicate their profession is more important, rather than less.

Another of my favorites is the nostrum eagerly passed between young mothers that "It's as easy to learn two languages as one." Really! It's ridiculous, even on casual examination. One can learn twice as many words with no extra effort? Well, then why not three languages? Four? Or better yet why not learn twice as many English words -- correct me if you disagree -- but wouldn't that be the most likely to improve academic performance?

So much politically correct, biased garbage. And that's how the cream of our society thinks. Maybe they're right: chatting on Facebook couldn't make their "decisions" any worse than they are.
thales
3 / 5 (2) May 13, 2009
Make the second language C and I'll bet you'll see academic improvement.
googleplex
5 / 5 (1) May 13, 2009
Here in California a lot of latino families only speak spanish at home and outside home they learn english. These children are getting the advantage of immersion learning. However academically their is a disparity between the latino and non-latino cohorts. This evidence would appear to contradict the article or at least suggest there are other more significant variables of academic success than being bilingual.
googleplex
not rated yet May 13, 2009
Make the second language C and I'll bet you'll see academic improvement.

Nice 1.
Are all computer programming languanges in english syntax? I suppose this would support english being a global language standard. Exception being machine code and other low level number based languages.
Arikin
3 / 5 (2) May 13, 2009
docknowledge,
Using your mind more for a second language or any other academic process will increase your mind's ability. A single research project can't correlate every last factor in a child's development!

But yes this article is a bit of rehash of known facts. The only thing it does do is clarify that the effect of learning a second language is beneficial not the opposite as many believed.

googleplex,
The article doesn't say that language learning is the only factor in academic success. In your example maybe culture and economics also plays a part.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) May 14, 2009
Etsi eipai o Ludwig Wittgenstein s'avto to thema:
"Die Grenzen deiner Sprache sind die Grenzen deiner Welt." (The limits of your language are the limits of your world.)
Arikin is completely right.

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