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Bilingualism predicts mathematical competence

7 Feb

An interesting paper, just published in Learning and Individual Differences. Here are the highlights:

• Using large-scale datasets, we examined the relation between bilingualism and math achievement.

• We found that bilingualism significantly predicted preschoolers’ math achievement.

• The positive predictability of bilingualism persisted from kindergarten through first grade.

• Bilingual advantages in executive functioning likely extend to mathematical achievement.

Advice on learning vocabulary

11 Dec

From Fluent in Three Months:

Learning new words is dull as dishwater unless you get a bit of context, and the best advice I know is to get input that you can understand. I always teach new words in context through pointing them out in texts, repeating them with lots of examples or telling a little story. In fact, storytelling is the most useful way of finding new words and putting them to use straight away so that you will remember them.

There’s a really useful set of vocabulary acquisition and revision guidelines over at Omniglot, in which Simon recommends that intermediate and advanced learners should start working with parallel texts (books that are printed bilingually, with a language on each page or each side of a column). I do this a lot, it’s the literary equivalent of watching original films and shows with your own language subtitles.

Don’t turn your nose up at having the translation so nearby – it’s practical and helpful for understanding stories, and what’s interesting and fun will keep you going. Other great materials for early learners involve short stories and children’s literature, even picturebooks.

Similarities between alphabets

4 Dec

From an article in Science:

What do Cyrillic, Arabic, Sanskrit, and 113 other writing systems have in common? Different as they appear at first glance, they share basic structural features, according to a new study: characters with vertical symmetry (like the Roman letters A and T) and a preference for vertical and horizontal lines over oblique lines (like those in the letters X and W). The explanation appears to be rooted in the wiring of our brain.

“People appear to have an aesthetic preference for certain kinds of shapes and designs, and that preference seems to explain the writing systems we see,” says Julie Fiez, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study. Fiez, who studies the neuroscience of reading, says those features may tap into how our eyes and brains process images: Neurons fire faster at the site of objects that display vertical symmetry—like human faces—and horizontal and vertical lines, which are common in natural landscapes.

You can read the original paper here. Here is the abstract:

Cultural forms are constrained by cognitive biases, and writing is thought to have evolved to fit basic visual preferences, but little is known about the history and mechanisms of that evolution. Cognitive constraints have been documented for the topology of script features, but not for their orientation. Orientation anisotropy in human vision, as revealed by the oblique effect, suggests that cardinal (vertical and horizontal) orientations, being easier to process, should be overrepresented in letters. As this study of 116 scripts shows, the orientation of strokes inside written characters massively favors cardinal directions, and it is organized in such a way as to make letter recognition easier: Cardinal and oblique strokes tend not to mix, and mirror symmetry is anisotropic, favoring vertical over horizontal symmetry. Phylogenetic analyses and recently invented scripts show that cultural evolution over the last three millennia cannot be the sole cause of these effects.

 

A polyglot’s language learning advice

15 Nov

Alex Voloza speaks eight languages. In this post he gives some language learning tips:

“It is very important to spend time with the language every day. Three hours on a Sunday and then no work during the week will not do the trick. You need to spoon-feed your brain with the language on a daily basis by engaging in different activities, including listening, reading, writing and speaking. Listen to an audio course, repeat phrases you hear, use flash cards for vocabulary, and talk to yourself in the language. There are also many times when you can squeeze practice into your days – for example, when in traffic, when out jogging, or even when you’re doing the dishes.”

Here is part of an interview with Voloza.

“A distinct language-learning benefit for people who grow up bilingual”

23 Oct

An interesting piece in Quartz:

The study found that the bilingual brain seems less taxed by linguistic acquisition than the monolingual brain. The research team, led by neuroscientist Michael Ullman of Georgetown University, discovered bilinguals were quicker to process a new language naturally at low levels of proficiency. They also seemed to need to pay less attention than monolinguals when using a new tongue at higher levels of proficiency.

Here is the abstract from the paper:

It has been suggested that bilinguals learn additional languages ‘better’ than monolinguals. However, evidence is sparse, particularly for grammar. We examined behavioral and neural correlates of learning an additional (artificial) language in early Mandarin–English bilinguals, compared to English monolinguals. Following grammar instruction, participants practiced comprehension and production, and judged grammaticality at low and high proficiency while event-related potentials (ERPs) were acquired. Bilinguals and monolinguals did not differ on behavioral measures, but showed distinct ERP patterns. At low proficiency only bilinguals showed a P600, a common ERP correlate of syntactic processing in native speakers of languages. At high proficiency both groups showed P600s, though the monolinguals also evidenced an anterior positivity not typically found in native speakers of languages during syntactic processing. These findings suggest that, even without bilingual/monolingual behavioral differences, bilinguals show ERP patterns for an additional language that are more similar to those of native speakers of languages.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on learning French

11 Oct

I like to highlight individual learning projects on this blog. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a number of times about his efforts to learn French:

I am emphasizing how I “feel” because, when studying, it is as important as any objective reality. Hopelessness feeds the fatigue that leads the student to quit. It is not the study of language that is hard, so much as the “feeling” that your present level is who you are and who you will always be. I remember returning from France at the end of the summer of 2013, and being convinced that I had some kind of brain injury which prevented me from hearing French vowel sounds. But the real enemy was not any injury so much as the “feeling” of despair. That is why I ignore all the research about children and their language advantage. I don’t want to hear it. I just don’t care. As Carolyn Forché would say—”I’m going to have it.”

Why are there so many languages?

18 Sep

A piece in Quartz explores this question:

In many cases, you could stand at the edge of one village and see the outskirts of the next community. Yet the residents of each village spoke completely different languages. According to recent work by my colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, this island, just 100 km long and 20 km wide, is home to speakers of perhaps 40 different indigenous languages. Why so many?
We could ask this same question of the entire globe. People don’t speak one universal language, or even a handful. Instead, today our species collectively speaks over 7,000 distinct languages.

I learned a number of interesting things about the dispersion of human languages from this article.

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