How Far Would You Go?‎

As babies grow up and develop language skills, they lose the ability to hear and produce sounds that aren’t used in their native language. This typically happens between 8 and 10 months, and it’s one of the things that makes it so difficult to learn a new language as an adult. However, with practice, most people can re-learn how to make these sounds as part of their language lessons.

Unfortunately, for British teenager Rhiannon Brooksbank-Jones, perfection remained elusive even after years of practice in Korean. The problem? She was quite literally “tongue tied.” Rhiannon had a condition called “ankyloglossia,” in which the frenulum that attaches the tongue to the bottom of the mouth is too short and/or too thick. There aren’t many statistics available on how common it is, but a study done at Southhampton General Hospital found that about 10% of babies born at that hospital were affected. The condition sometimes resolves by itself in early childhood, but at Rhiannon’s age, the only option was surgery. Read more

Is Romance the Best Way to Learn a New Language?

Here’s a special Valentine’s Day tip for learning a new language- find a foreign sweetheart! According to an article from DallasNews, a love affair is the best way to become fluent in another language.

That may sound incredibly cheesy, but consider this striking statistic: language learners who have either a significant other or a parent who is fluent in the language they are trying to learn will become fluent themselves in about the half the time it takes someone without a parent or romantic partner who speaks the language.

In the article, Philip Sweet, a professor of German at Radford University in Virginia, explains why becoming involved with someone who speaks another language can help you become fluent so much more quickly:

“Emotion is the printing fluid of memory. If you’re with somebody that you’re in love with, it makes a lot of things – really everything – that you’re doing exciting. Those phrases that you hear … you’re more likely to remember them.”

The article follows two Italian/American couples who met in Italy. Both couples found that their fluency in each other’s languages blossomed along with their relationships. In fact, when Italian Alessandro Cannali moved back to the US with his American-born wife, he tried to take an English As a Second Language class but was advised he was already too fluent, and would need to take an English class for native speakers.

Of course, if you’re already happily settled with a fellow native English speaker, there’s no need to indulge in an illicit affair to learn a new language. Being “in love” helps, but according to Chiara Crippa, the managing director for an Italian school called Italiaidea, you can just as easily fall in love with the culture:

The student doesn’t need an Italian sweetheart, Crippa insisted. Infatuation with the country’s language, food or music will suffice if it pushes a student to learn, for example, indirect object pronouns.

Want to See the World From a New Perspective?

Learning how to speak another language can be a lot of fun, and knowing how to speak one is a useful, marketable skill in today’s world. But there’s another reason to learn a new language. It may sound like a cliché, but a new study indicates that learning a second language can actually change the way you see the world.

The study looked at people who spoke Japanese, people who spoke English and people who spoke both languages, and asked them to distinguish between different shades of blue.

Why blue? The Japanese language differentiates between light blue (mizuiro, or “the color of water”) and dark blue (ao) in a way that English does not. Read more

Different Grammatical Structures Use Different Parts of the Brain

All languages have a vocabulary and a grammatical structure. However, the type of grammatical structure varies depending on which language you are looking at. In some languages, like English, the order of the words largely determines the meaning of a sentence. However, in other languages, like German, word order is more flexible because the language uses “tags,” like prefixes or suffixes, to make the meaning of the sentence clear.

If trying to learn a language with a different grammatical structure than the one you were born speaking makes your head feel like it’s going to explode at first, there may be a very good reason: you’re having to use a different part of your brain than you normally would.

In American Sign Language (ASL), the meaning of a sentence can be determined either by word order or by “tags.” So, the same sentence can be signed two ways-either using word order or using tags. In a study performed at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, researchers found that individuals fluent in ASL used a different part of the brain to comprehend a sentence signed with tags than they did to understand the same sentence signed using word order.

The researchers showed 14 deaf individuals, all native ASL signers,a video of a study coauthor signing the same sentences in two different ways. While the study participants watched the video, the researchers used functional MRI scans to monitor their brain activity.

To the authors of the study, the fact that different areas of the brain were used to process the different types of syntax implies that we comprehend language using neural structures that originally evolved for other purposes. As coauthor Aaron Newman told Science News:

“We’re using and adapting the machinery we already have in our brains. Obviously we’re doing something different [from other animals], because we’re able to learn language. But it’s not because some little black box evolved specially in our brain that does only language, and nothing else.”

British Travelers Don’t Speak the Language

When you travel to another country, it’s considered common courtesy to try to learn at least a little bit of the local language. But according to a new survey from travel insurance company Sheila’s Wheels, it’s a courtesy that Brits generally neglect.

According to a writeup of the study in the Daily Mail, out of 3,000 people who planned to go on holiday outside the country, 51 percent said they “rarely” took the time to learn how to say anything in the local language before taking off.  Based on the results of the survey, it seems that the average Brit knows six words or phrases in Spanish, ten in French and three in Italian. Read more

Bilingual Toddlers Better at Paying Attention

It’s definitely easier for young children and toddlers to learn a second language than it is for adults. And many scientific studies have hinted that learning a second language offers cognitive benefits, too.

A new study described in Science Daily shows that starting a second language as early as possible also helps toddlers focus on screening out distractions when asked to perform simple tasks.

The study looked at 63 toddlers, some of whom had parents who spoke English only, and others whose bilingual parents spoke both English and French at home. The goal was to see how well the toddlers had been able to build up a vocabulary in each language, as well as to see if switching back and forth from English and French had any impact on cognitive development. Read more