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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

The Year Without English

3 May

There is an amazing community of language learners and polyglots and the internet. Here is a video about a year spend learning four languages:

Another Sapir-Whorf claim

27 Feb

As I have mentioned before, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis  claims that specific languages affect how speakers view the world. Recently, I came across this article about a Japanese company that is making its employees (in Japan) speak English:

Japan continues to work inside a linguistic bubble – not least because many firms in Japan are oriented towards the domestic market and pay little heed to global trends. But this approach is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Switching to English makes Japanese firms more competitive, while opening employees’ eyes to the outside world.

There is another benefit to using English in business: The language has few power markers. Its use can therefore help to break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society and reflected in Japanese conversation, which could boost efficiency.

What were the effects of this change?

Of course, the Englishisation of companies is not easy. The internal shake-up is profound. Staff who speak English well suddenly acquire a higher status: those who do not fear for their careers.

Today, more than 90 per cent of our employees have achieved the required level of English. This has helped to make our operations more efficient than ever. An employee anywhere in the world can pick up a phone and get an immediate answer, instead of working through a translator.

The impact can also be felt on an individual level. One manager, who initially feared that he would have to leave the company, changed his tune after attending an intensive English-language school in the Philippines, where he met students from South Korea and China who were committed to mastering the language. His English improved quickly, and so did his standing in the company. More importantly, he gained a much-needed global perspective.

Language sounds may not be arbitrary

28 Dec

When I teach about language development, I have always told my students that the sounds of language are arbitrary. The fact that the same animal can be “dog” in English and “inu” in Japanese, shows that the sound systems of different languages are just historic accidents.

Well, maybe not. A study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that there may be certain fundamental similarities between certain words across languages:

It is widely assumed that one of the fundamental properties of spoken language is the arbitrary relation between sound and meaning. Some exceptions in the form of nonarbitrary associations have been documented in linguistics, cognitive science, and anthropology, but these studies only involved small subsets of the 6,000+ languages spoken in the world today. By analyzing word lists covering nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages, we demonstrate that a considerable proportion of 100 basic vocabulary items carry strong associations with specific kinds of human speech sounds, occurring persistently across continents and linguistic lineages (linguistic families or isolates). Prominently among these relations, we find property words (“small” and i, “full” and p or b) and body part terms (“tongue” and l, “nose” and n). The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed. Our results therefore have important implications for the language sciences, given that nonarbitrary associations have been proposed to play a critical role in the emergence of cross-modal mappings, the acquisition of language, and the evolution of our species’ unique communication system.

One possible explanation for these similarities is that they are survivals from prot0-world, the hypothetical first human language. But note that the authors argue against this:

The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed

Sensitive periods in teenagers and young adults?

25 Nov

In developmental psychology, “sensitive period” refers to an age range where the the brain is especially sensitive to specific environmental stimuli. The most famous example of this is the sensitive period for language development during early childhood.

Now, a paper in Psychological Science reports on evidence for a sensitive period during adolescence and early adulthood:

In the current study, we investigated windows for enhanced learning of cognitive skills during adolescence. Six hundred thirty-three participants (11–33 years old) were divided into four age groups, and each participant was randomly allocated to one of three training groups. Each training group completed up to 20 days of online training in numerosity discrimination (i.e., discriminating small from large numbers of objects), relational reasoning (i.e., detecting abstract relationships between groups of items), or face perception (i.e., identifying differences in faces). Training yielded some improvement in performance on the numerosity-discrimination task, but only in older adolescents or adults. In contrast, training in relational reasoning improved performance on that task in all age groups, but training benefits were greater for people in late adolescence and adulthood than for people earlier in adolescence. Training did not increase performance on the face-perception task for any age group. Our findings suggest that for certain cognitive skills, training during late adolescence and adulthood yields greater improvement than training earlier in adolescence, which highlights the relevance of this late developmental stage for education.

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