Tag Archives: Language

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.”

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.


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.

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.

A (counter-)revolution in linguistics?

14 Sep

This week I will have to introduce my students to language development. This usually involves describing Chomsky’s theory, the standard in all textbooks. However, a serous challenge to Chomsky’s views has begun to emerge. You can read about it here in this Scientific American piece:

At the time the Chomskyan paradigm was proposed, it was a radical break from the more informal approaches prevalent at the time, and it drew attention to all the cognitive complexities in­­volved in becoming competent at speaking and understanding language. But at the same time that theories such as Chomsky’s allowed us to see new things, they also blinded us to other aspects of language. In linguistics and allied fields, many researchers are be­­coming ever more dissatisfied with a totally formal language approach such as universal grammar—not to mention the empirical inadequacies of the theory.

I wonder if there will be any renewed interest in Skinner’s ideas on this topic?


Language Facts

12 Sep

I was searching for some information for a lecture on language development and stumbled upon this fascinating webpage. A few of the things I learned:

The language with the fewest sounds (phonemes): Rotokas (11 phonemes)

The language with the most sounds (phonemes): !Xóõ (112 phonemes). Approx. 4200 speak !Xóõ, the vast majority of whom live in the African country of Botswana.

Here is a video about saving Rotokas:



You can hear !Xóõ spoken here:


The website does make one mistake it claims:

Language with the fewest words: Taki Taki (also called Sranan), 340 words. Taki Taki is an English-based Creole spoken by 120,000 in the South American country of Suriname.

Actually,  Toki Pona has only 120 words.



%d bloggers like this: