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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.

Language learning: Vocabulary more important than grammar

24 Jul

Polyglot Steve Kaufmann makes this important point:

The importance of a large vocabulary in your target language can’t be overstated. Some are convinced we can converse quite comfortably with just a few hundred words. There are lots of articles on the topic. I don’t agree. You can communicate with a few words, but you can’t say much and you understand even less, and that means a very limited form of communication.

My views have been formed through my own experience of learning 15 languages. I constantly find my lack of words to be the greatest obstacle to enjoying the language more. Why? Because the words I am missing prevent me from understanding things that I hear, read and want to understand. With enough vocabulary and comprehension comes confidence; the confidence that I can defend myself in the language. With this confidence to sustain me, the speaking part develops naturally as I have more and more opportunity to speak.

I get apoplectic when people say that we should de-emphasize memory in education. Language learning is exhibit A in the case for the continuing importance of memory. Fortunately, memorization of vocabulary is made much easier by the availability of tools like Anki and Memrise.

Check out Kaufmann’s YouTube channel here.

 

 

The Higher Efficiency of the Bilingual Brain

2 Jun

A paper in The Journal of Neurolinguistics: “Interference Control at the Response Level: Functional Networks Reveal Higher Efficiency in the Bilingual Brain.” Here is the abstract:

The bilingual advantage in interference control tasks has been studied with the Simon task, among others. The mixed evidence from the existing studies has led to contradictions in the literature regarding the bilingual advantage. Moreover, fMRI evidence on the neural basis of interference control mechanisms with the Simon task is limited. Previous work by our team showed that equivalent performance on the Simon task was associated with different activation maps in elderly bilinguals and monolinguals. This study aims to provide a more in-depth perspective on the neural bases of performance on the Simon task in elderly bilinguals and monolinguals, by adopting a network perspective for the functional connectivity analysis. A node-by-node analysis led to the identification of the specific topology that characterized the bilingual and monolingual functional networks and the degree of connectivity between each node across groups. Results showed greater connectivity in bilinguals in the inferior temporal sulcus, which plays a role in visuospatial processing. On the other hand, in monolinguals, brain areas involved in visual, motor, executive functions and interference control were more connected to resolve the same task. In other words, in comparison to the monolingual brain, the bilingual brain resolves visuospatial interference economically, by allocating fewer and more clustered regions. These results demonstrate a larger global efficiency in task performance in bilinguals as compared to monolinguals. Also, the provided evidence filters out the task-specific so-called bilingual advantage discussed in the literature and posits that bilinguals are strategically more efficient in a given performance than monolinguals, thus enhancing our understanding of successful aging.

You can read about the Simon Task here.

 

“How I learned 8 Languages”

31 May
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