Stephen Colbert Gets His Own Language

American comedian Stephen Colbert’s late night alter ego is known for his ego…and his frequent campaigns to get everything from spiders to a piece of the International Space Station named for him.

So, the latest news from his alma mater, Northwestern University, should bring a smile to his face. Researchers there named an invented language used for an experiment “Colbertian,” after the comedian.

NBC Chicago quotes Communications Professor Viorica Marian, one of the authors of the study, explaining their reasoning:

“Stephen Colbert has brought new words like ‘truthiness’ and ‘Lincolnish’ into the lexicon. We had to invent a new language to do our research, and no one invents words as readily as Stephen Colbert. Naming our new language after Colbert was a no-brainer.”

Of course, the guaranteed extra publicity might have been another factor, as well.

What does “Colbertian” sound like? Well, basically like gibberish, but that’s to be expected in a language invented for a language learning experiment.

Incidentally, the experiment looked at how being bilingual affects your ability to learn additional languages. The results dovetailed nicely with this study by the University of Haifa, implying that being fluent in two languages makes it easier to learn a third (Colbertian, in this case).

During the experiment, both monolingual and bilingual individuals were asked to learn Colbertian, then given a quiz in which they were asked to match nouns from the language with the appropriate pictures. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, participants who were already bilingual ““experience less interference from their native language when listening to speech in a newly learned language.”

Study co-author James Bartolotti told the Chicago Sun-Times, ““We found that people who learned both English and Spanish at an early age and continued to speak them, better retained the words in Colbertian.”

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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.”

How a Second Language Keeps You Young

Looking for the fountain of youth? Look no further than a foreign language class, at least as far as your brain is concerned. According to a new study from the University of Edinburgh, learning to speak a second language actually keeps your brain younger and protects against age-related cognitive decline.

The study looked at 835 men and women, all born in Scotland to English-speaking families. They were tested for mental abilities once at age eleven  and then again in their seventies.

The subjects who spoke more than one language did much better than would normally be expected on the second round of tests, especially in the areas of general intelligence and reading. Research has clearly established that children are “wired” to learn a second language more easily than adults, and there are cognitive advantages to being raised bilingually.

However,  in this study the beneficial effects were seen even in people who learned their second language after the age of 18.  So, it’s never too late to reap the benefits of learning another language.

Study author Dr. Thomas Bak, of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, wrote:

“These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain.”

Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of medicine at Harvard, confirmed the importance of the study to the BBC:

“The epidemiological study provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the ageing brain. This research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention.”

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Bilingual? Why Not Go for Three?

Learning a new language is kind of like shopping at a sale where everything is “buy one, get one half-off.” At least, that’s what the results of a new study from the University of Haifa reveals. Once you’ve got a second language down, picking up a third language is much easier. There’s also evidence that becoming bilingual might improve your proficiency in your native language, as well.

The researchers figured that people who were already fluent in two languages would have an easier time learning a third language. To test this, they looked at a group of Israeli 6th graders who were studying English. Some of the 6th graders had been speaking Hebrew since birth and were learning English as a second language. Others were native Russian speakers who were fluent in Hebrew and were learning English as a third language. The students were tested for proficiency in all three languages and for intelligence. Read more

Foreign Language Education Surges in Spain

Mired in an economic crisis, more and more Spanish people are facing the question “¿Habla inglés?” as they search for jobs.

Being able to speak English fluently is a huge advantage in Spain right now simply because being bilingual gives you a better chance of being able to find a job in another country. According to the New York Times, Spain currently has a 20 percent unemployment rate. Read more

Learn A Language And Avoid Memory Loss

Need an extra incentive to start taking those Spanish lessons? It turns out that learning another language may help keep your memory from deteriorating as you age. Even if you already know two languages, go ahead and try to pick up another – the more the merrier, as far as your memory is concerned.

At least, that’s the conclusion that researchers are drawing from the results of two studies released last week.

The first study, from York University in Toronto, showed that bilingual Alzheimer’s patients were able to delay the effects of the disease by as much as 4 to 5 years compared to patients who only spoke one language. According to Time Magazine, learning another language is like exercise for your brain, and creates a “cognitive reserve” that doesn’t prevent the disease but seems to buy victims more time. Read more