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Bilingual Adults Can’t Stop Thinking in Native Language

In foreign language classes, professors will often tell you that in order to be successful, you need to stop thinking in your native tongue and start thinking in the language you are trying to learn. This is harder than it sounds, and a new study suggests that even fully bilingual adults can’t stop thinking in their native languages.

The study, conducted by Bangor University, focused on 90 volunteers. 30 volunteers were native Chinese speakers, 30 were native English speakers and 30 spoke both English and Chinese. They were asked to decide whether pairs of English words had similar meanings, but some pairs consisted of unrelated words that nonetheless sound very similar to each other when translated into Chinese.

The bilingual volunteers performed just as well as on the tests as the native English speakers, but when they encountered pairs of words that were unrelated in English but that sound alike in Chinese, their brain waves changed. To the scientists performing the study, this indicates that on some level they were translating the words into Chinese, even though that wasn’t necessary to complete the test.

In Science Daily, Dr. Guillaume Thierry, one of the study’s authors, explained the conclusions the scientists were able to draw from the study:

“Bilingual individuals retrieve information from their native language even when it’s not necessary, or, even more surprising, when it is counterproductive, since native language information does not help when reading or listening to second-language words.”

The bilingual adults in this study all learned English relatively late, after age 12. Some scientists  feel that this is one of the study’s limitations, and question whether or not the same results would be obtained with children who learned another language at an early age.

For example, Michael Chee of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School told Science Daily that:

“One limitation of the study is that many older generation English learners from China learned English by memorizing lists of words in what seems like a brute force method of learning. It would be interesting to see if the same results would be obtained if persons learning English earlier were studied.”

Archive of English Accents

English is the third most commonly spoken native language in the world, and if you count people who speak it as a second language, it’s probably the language with the most speakers overall. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone speaks it in the same way – far from it! Even among native English speakers, there are too many local dialects and accents to name. When you throw in people who speak English as a second language, the variation becomes even more extreme.

To help document and catalogue the many different ways in which English is spoken, Steven Weinberger, a linguistics professor George Mason University in the United States, has created the Speech Accent Archive.

According to Voice of America, the archive consists of recordings of people reading the following paragraph, written to include most of the sounds in the English language: Read more

To Learn a Foreign Language, Listen

If you’re struggling with learning a new language, try listening to native speakers. That’s the conclusion of a new study from Victoria University in New Zealand.

According to the Daily Mail, researchers have discovered that listening to people talk or sing in a foreign language makes learning that language easier, even if you haven’t the foggiest idea what they are saying.

How is this possible? When babies start learning language, their brains develop neural structures that allow them to understand and process the different combinations of sounds in their native language. However, when you learn a new language, you are often confronted with combinations of sounds that you’ve never encountered before. It can be difficult to learn and remember words in a foreign language because your brain doesn’t have the appropriate neural structures to do so.

The good news is that over time, simply hearing a new language spoken will cause your brain to grow new neural tissue to process the new combinations of sound, just as a baby does when learning its first language. As your brain becomes more attuned to the sounds of the new language, it will become easier for you to speak and understand it.

Dr. Paul Sulzberger, the author of the study, summed the results up nicely when he told the Daily Mail, “To learn a language you have to grow the appropriate brain tissue, and you do this by lots of listening – songs and movies are great.”

Often, foreign language students wait until they can actually understand the spoken language to start watching television or listening to music in that language. This study suggests that is the wrong approach to take.

If you’re learning a new language, try to find music, movies and television that feature people speaking in that language. Listen to the music on your MP3 player or watch a TV show while you eat dinner. If you keep listening to native speakers and try to learn the language, it won’t be long before what you’re hearing starts to make sense!

Native American Girl Punished for Translation

Decades ago, the US government made a conscious effort to force Native American children to forget their tribal languages. In many regions, native children were taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools, where they were not only encouraged to speak English put actually punished for speaking their own languages.

So, when teachers in a small-town Catholic School took it upon themselves to reprimand a 12-year-old Menominee student for translating a few basic English phrases into the Menominee language, it’s only natural that a firestorm ensued.

Here’s the story, as reported in the Toronto Star. After the girl, Miranda Washinawatok, translated “hello,” “I love you” and “thank you” into Menominee for other students in the class, her teacher, Julie Gurta snapped at her in class. Ms. Gurta’s rationale was that since she couldn’t understand Menominee, the children could be using it to say something improper behind her back.

As if that overreaction wasn’t enough, the girl was singled out again in her next class by the teacher for “upsetting” Ms. Gurta. Then, she was benched at a basketball game for the same reason.

Miranda’s mother went to the local news station after the school refused to clarify the disciplinary actions taken against her daughter.

That got results, as the Catholic diocese that runs the school agreed to meet with Miranda’s mother and her great-uncle, anti-racism activist Richie Plass. Despite the obvious echo of the “bad old days,” Plass attributed the problem to cultural ignorance rather than malicious racism. He told the Toronto Star:

“What’s become apparent to a lot of people in the diocese and the decision-makers especially is how much their staff and people flat-out don’t know when it comes to our culture. With this issue — and we don’t know what happened before now — to me I don’t think it was racist. I think it was ignorance. It’s ignorance and a form of intolerance.”

Meanwhile, the diocese spokesperson acknowledged that “the whole situation was handled poorly by the school. It was a wake-up call for us. This brought a lot of issues, emotion and anger to the forefront. There’s a lot there we need to work on.”

They might start by working with Ms. Gurta, who sent a letter to the family explaining her actions in which she accused Miranda of “increas[ing] increase racial and cultural tensions.”

How does a school in a heavily Native American area manage to remain so ignorant of the history of language suppression that they faced? And shouldn’t they be encouraging students to take pride in their heritage and speak a language that considered “highly endangered,” with only 130 native speakers left?  More broadly, shouldn’t hearing someone speak another language (especially when they’re more than willing to translate for you) be treated as an opportunity to learn rather than a threat?