Struggling to Learn a New Language? Blame It on Your Stable Brain

A study in patients with epilepsy is helping researchers understand how the brain manages the task of learning a new language while retaining our mother tongue. The study, by neuroscientists at UC San Francisco, sheds light on the age-old question of why it’s so difficult to learn a second language as an adult.

The somewhat surprising results gave the team a window into how the brain navigates the tradeoff between neuroplasticity — the ability to grow new connections between neurons when learning new things — and stability, which allows us to maintain the integrated networks of things we’ve already learned. The findings appear in the Aug. 30 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

“When learning a new language, our brains are somehow accommodating both of these forces as they’re competing against each other,” said Matt Leonard, PhD, assistant professor of neurological surgery and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.  

By using electrodes on the surface of the brain to follow high-resolution neural signals, the team found that clusters of neurons scattered throughout the speech cortex appear to fine-tune themselves as a listener gains familiarity with foreign sounds.  

“These are our first insights into what’s changing in the brain between first hearing the sounds of a foreign language and being able to recognize them,” said Leonard, who is a principal investigator on the study.  

Read more: University of California San Francisco

How do children learn languages faster?

Children at a younger age learn languages at a much faster pace than teens or older people. The explanation for this learning advantage lies in the differences in the way that people speak to children and adults.

The results were published in an advance online publication of the journal of Psychological Science. For the first time, a team of researchers developed a method to experimentally evaluate how parents use what they know about their children’s language when they talk to them.

They found that parents have extremely precise models of their children’s language knowledge, and use these models to tune the language they use when speaking to them.

“We have known for years that parents talk to children differently than to other adults in a lot of ways, for example simplifying their speech, reduplicating words and stretching out vowel sounds,” said Daniel Yurovsky, assistant professor in psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

He added, “This stuff helps young kids get a toehold into language, but we didn’t know whether parents change the way they talk, giving children language input that is ‘just right’ for learning the next thing.”

Adults tend to speak to children more slowly and at a higher pitch. They also use more exaggerated enunciation, repetition and simplified language structure. Adults also pepper their communication with questions to gauge the child’s comprehension. As the child’s language fluency increases, the sentence structure and complexity used by adults increases.

Yurovsky likens this to the progression a student follows when learning math in school. “When you go to school, you start with algebra and then take plane geometry before moving onto calculus,” said Yurovsky. “People talk to kids using the same kind of structure without thinking about it. They are tracking how much their child knows about language and modifying how they speak so that for children understand them.”

Read more: Mint Lounge

The more languages you speak, the easier it is for the brain to learn more

TOKYO, Japan — For those of us confined to knowing just one language, learning an additional dialect can feel impossible. Many bilinguals, however, marvel at the language skills of multilinguals (individuals fluent in three or more languages). Interestingly, a new Japanese study reports the collection of ground-breaking neurological evidence indicating lingual skills are additive. In other words, the more languages you speak, the easier it will be to learn another.

These findings potentially explain why one person fluent in English and Spanish may be in awe of someone who can speak German, Russian, and English. Meanwhile, that trilingual individual can’t believe it when he or she meets someone else who can speak German, Italian, French, English, and Russian.

“The traditional idea is, if you understand bilinguals, you can use those same details to understand multilinguals. We rigorously checked that possibility with this research and saw multilinguals’ language acquisition skills are not equivalent, but superior to those of bilinguals,” says study co-author Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai from the University of Tokyo in a release.

Researchers measured the brain activity of 21 bilingual and 28 multilingual study participants as each person attempted to decipher words and sentences written and spoken in Kazakh — a language no participant was familiar with at all. All subjects were native Japanese speakers, with most also being fluent in English. Some of the multilingual participants could speak up to five languages including Chinese, Russian, Korean, and German.

Read more: StudyFinds

Why teachers shouldn’t be afraid of other languages being spoken in the classroom

More than 20% of all primary school and 16% of secondary school children in the UK speak languages other than English. And there are now more than 360 languages spoken in British classrooms.

But more often than not, in mainstream schools in the UK, the “home languages” of children can be sidelined at best, and prohibited at worst. English is the language of the classroom – this is despite the fact that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that children from linguistic minorities should not be “denied the right” to use their own languages.

In my recent research, I found there was often a lot of fear associated with the use of “home” languages among the typically white, monolingual demographic of the teaching profession.

In my study, which looks at educator’s attitudes towards multilingualism, one teacher I spoke with explained how she likes children to respond to the register in whatever language they choose, but anything more than this is frowned upon.

She also spoke about what she called “the inappropriateness of language” – claiming that children only use other languages when they want to be rude or exclude others.

Not encouraged

This teacher is not alone in thinking classrooms should be exclusively English speaking – and it isn’t just the case in the UK. Researchers have observed prohibition of the home languages of children in France, where the thought of using any language other than French in the classroom was likened to “anarchy”. In Greece, Albanian speaking children are told that “here, we speak this language [Greek] that we all understand”.

Part of the problem, is most likely down to the fact that losing control of aspects of the learning process can be challenging for teachers. And it can take a significant investment of resources (both funding and time) to gain enough confidence to allow for other languages in your classroom.

Read more: The Conversation

Native Language Schools Are Taking Back Education

For more than 150 years, the Wôpanâak language was silent. With no fluent speakers alive, the language of the Mashpee Wampanoag people existed only in historical documents. It was by all measures extinct. But a recently established language school on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation in Massachusetts is working to bring back the language.

The threat of extinction that faces the Wôpanâak language is not uncommon for indigenous languages in the United States. Calculated federal policy, not happenstance, led to the destruction of Native American languages such as Wôpanâak.

But today, Native language schools are working to change that by revitalizing languages that have been threatened with extinction.

In the 19th century, federal policy shifted from a policy of extermination and displacement to assimilation. The passage of the Civilization Fund Act in 1819 allocated federal funds directly to education for the purpose of assimilation, and that led to the formation of many government-run boarding schools. Boarding schools were not meant to educate, but to assimilate.

Tribal communities continue to be haunted by this history. As of April, UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages listed 191 Native American languages as “in danger” in the United States. Of these, some languages are vulnerable—meaning that children speak the language, but only in certain contexts—to critically endangered—meaning the youngest generation of speakers are elderly.

Today, the education system in the United States fails Native American students. Native students have the lowest high school graduation rate of any racial group nationally, according to the 2017 Condition of Education Report. And a 2010 report shows that in the 12 states with the highest Native American population, less than 50 percent of Native students graduate from high school per year.

By founding schools that teach in Native languages and center tribal history and beliefs, tribal language schools are taking education back into their own hands.

Read more: YES! Magazine

Linguists digitise 1970s children’s storybooks to help preserve Indigenous languages

During this time, bilingual education programs were rolled out in remote schools throughout the Northern Territory, allowing schoolchildren to read and write in their native languages before transitioning to reading and writing in English.

Thousands of unique, entry-level children’s books, often based on local stories and illustrated by local artists, were created in Indigenous languages.

“Some were very simple and plain — just a line drawing with a couple of words,” linguist Cathy Bow said.

The colourful books now scattered throughout the Northern Territory are still deeply important, according to Ms Bow.

And as the project manager of the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages, she has helped make 3,380 of them publicly available in an easy-to-use online archive.

Ms Bow and her team travelled to schools in locations as remote as Galiwin’ku, Barunga and Papunya to source the material.

A report that led to the establishment of the programs recommended “flooding the place with literature” — but the remains Ms Bow’s team have found might be better described as puddles.

If they have not been lost, damaged or destroyed already, the booklets are often collecting dust in long-forgotten school cupboards.

Read more: ABC

Educators Try New Methods to Save American Indian Languages

The United States is home to 562 federally recognized American Indian Nations, each with its own language.

Yet the number of Native Americans with the ability to speak their tribe’s language has decreased over the past century.

Now, Indian Nations are trying different ways to expand the number of native speakers, and increase interest in their communities to learn tribal languages.

Language in the United States

Since the late 1800s, many American Indian children have attended boarding schools. At the time, Indian children were required to attend schools by law, and the federal government forced Indian families to send their children to such schools.

The purpose of this requirement was to educate young people, as well as assimilate them in “American ways of life.”

The children were separated from their families, and given English names. As many boarding schools were operated by religious groups, the children were also taught Christianity.

One of the most lasting effects of these schools was language. The teachers often taught Native American students in English, instead of the language of their parents.

AnCita Benally serves as education program manager for the Navajo Nation. She says the boarding school students were told they needed to learn English in order to get a job, earn money and buy a house or nice things.

Benally says the effect of these schools has lasted for generations. When the “boarding school generation” started having children, they were only taught English. At the time, many people believed this made sense – for economic and other reasons. But a lot of Native Americans could no longer speak their tribal language well enough to pass it on to their children.

Today, even though tribal-run schools exist on their territory, most tribes report that their youngest members have trouble speaking traditional, tribal languages. Fearing a loss of history and culture, the Indian Nations are experimenting with new ways to increase the language ability and interest of tribal members.

Read more: Voice of America

Carrying On His Great Grandfather’s Work, A Kansas Professor Helps Keep Their Language Alive

As a kid, Andrew McKenzie had an unusual affinity for languages.

He took French in high school (because everyone else was taking Spanish). But that wasn’t enough.

“I started to teach myself different languages, like Latin and Greek and Basque and Turkish,” he remembers. “I would drive into the city to a bookstore, and they’d have a section with language books. I’d say, ‘I’m just going to learn this language because the book has the prettiest font.'”

So it’s not surprising that McKenzie ended up as a professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas. But it turns out there’s another reason why he’s uniquely qualified for his area of research, which involves documenting the endangered language of Oklahoma’s Kiowa people.

A languages dies when children stop learning it naturally (as opposed to being taught at school) and when there’s no documentation. But if it’s been documented, a language can be revived (the best example of this is Hebrew).

The Kiowa tribe is small, with only about 12,000 members, many of them spread out around the country. Most of the native speakers are in Southwest Oklahoma.

“There are only a few dozen speakers, and some people would even estimate fewer,” McKenzie says. “And a lot of them are in their 80s and 90s.”

By one estimate, Kiowa is among 165 endangered languages in the United States; thousands of languages around the world are also in danger of extinction.

Read more: KCUR 89.3

How This Native Educator Is Keeping A Tribal Language Alive

On the Omaha Native American reservation in northeastern Nebraska, one educator is working hard to keep the tribal language alive by helping kids to learn it in school.

Vida Woodhull Stabler is the director of the Omaha (or “Umonhon” in the tribe’s language) culture center at Umonhon Nation Public Schools in Macy, Nebraska. She has been working for the past 18 years to painstakingly gather, record and pass on the cultural knowledge of tribal elders for future generations. Alongside other elders in the community, she has helped to developed a curriculum and lesson plans for Umonhon language classes, as well as other ways to infuse students’ day-to-day school experience with culturally relevant learnings, such as tribal songs and dance.

But she and her colleagues face an uphill battle: Only about a dozen Umonhon tribe members are believed to speak the language fluently today, Stabler told HuffPost.

“It is important for children” to learn the Umonhon language, Stabler told HuffPost. “I truly believe this: There is an innate need, want and love of our culture inside of them. They will become stronger as human beings when they know who they are, and can stand firm and strong against all the challenges that life will throw at them.”

Kyleigh Merrick, 15, who has attended Umonhon Nation schools since kindergarten, has chosen Umonhon language as an elective class.

“I hope to become one of the fluent speakers,” Merrick told HuffPost. “To me it is really important for everyone to learn the language and to teach our kids, because there aren’t that many fluent speakers. If I can become a fluent speaker, I can teach everyone else and help the language not die.”

Read more: Huffington Post

Wisconsin School Works To Keep Native American Languages Alive Around The World

In Hayward, Wisconsin, a program is working to preserve Native American language and culture in the state and across the world.

Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Institute is an immersion school where the Ojibwe language isn’t only taught, it’s the language used to teach all core classes.

Waadookodaading means “a place where people help each other,” and the name is apt. The school’s mission and activities reach far beyond its own facility, and even past the borders of the state.

Executive Director Brooke Ammann explained Waadookodaading was a founding member of the National Coalition of Native American Language Schools & Programs. That group is made up of schools and programs in 16 states that use an indigenous language as the language of instruction for at least half of the classes offered in the targeted grades.

“We share with each other when we need support, not just in any of the policy fields, but also in planning and sharing best practices that we have all developed over time with our programs,” Ammann said, adding that coalition members “share knowledge, resources. At times, we also will review any upcoming federal policies to see if they align with the Native American Languages Act of 1990. It’s a law that protects the right to use our native languages in educational settings.”

Ojibwe and other Native American languages didn’t decline naturally. Federal policy aimed to wipe them out. For example, an 1868 Report of the Indian Peace Commissioners stated “schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted.”

Read more: WPR

With fewer fluent speakers, demand for teachers of Indigenous languages is on the rise

A trend toward “Indigenizing” programming in schools by bringing Indigenous culture and languages into the classroom has led to a demand for teachers who are fluent in Indigenous languages. But with the number of Indigenous language speakers on the decline, school divisions have had a hard time finding qualified and certified teachers.

“We had some difficulty, looking for Dakota language teachers. Not a lot of people are seeing that as a career,” said Kevin Tacan.

Tacan, is a Dakota knowledge keeper, and has been working with the Brandon School Division in Manitoba for 21 years. The school division is in its second year of offering high school courses on Indigenous languages, but they’ve had a hard time filling the Dakota language position in time for the new year.

“We’re trying to bring that self-esteem and confidence back to our youth, because at that age — just a little bit behind puberty — our young people are supposed to be doing their vision quests and ceremonies. Their language is important for those types of things,” said Tacan.

“If they don’t have those, they’re not going to understand the importance of them.”

Read more: CBC News

Cantonese, Putonghua or English? The language politics of Hong Kong’s school system

Education issues have rarely been out of the headlines in the 20 years since Hong Kong’s handover.

Some of the scenes we have witnessed include primary students tearfully describing the pressure of drills and cramming to the Legislative Council and parents collecting signatures to abolish the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) tests. Add to that the secondary students protesting against the switch to Putonghua in classes normally conducted in Cantonese and the 120,000 strong crowd surrounding the government headquarters to protest against national education in 2012. These scenes illustrate the controversy that has surrounded many of the education policies of the past two decades.

Sweeping reforms have been implemented in many areas of the education system, including school admissions, internal assessment mechanisms, student assessments and standardised test and the curricula. Another big area of change has been in the medium of instruction (MOI), with a widespread switch to mother-tongue teaching in 1998-9 and the active promotion of teaching Chinese in Putonghua (PMIC) in 2008, with the announcement of HK$200 million in funds to help schools make the switch from Cantonese in Chinese language classes.

Read more: Hong Kong Free Press