Keeping It Real – Language Myths Busted with Christie Kincaid

Designed to share with you by: Llacey Simmons

Meet…Christie Kincaid

Christie Kincaid currently works as a Licensed Psychological Associate in Kentucky, as she completes the final year of her Doctorate of Psychology (Psy. D) program. Prior to that, she received a Bachelor’s of Arts in English, as well as a Master’s of Arts in both Forensic Psychology and Clinical Psychology, and worked in the education field.

During much of her scholastic and professional endeavors, she has extensively researched the links between culture, language, and psychological functioning, paying particular attention to psycholinguistics and cultural intelligence.

As a monolingual parent, dedicated to raising my son as an English and Mandarin speaker, I have stumbled across many language myths about bilingualism. So, the verdict is out…let’s separate the facts from the fiction.

Before we jump into the details, let’s cover some scientific things…

Everyone develops neural networks differently.

To fully answer these questions for your readers, it is important to explain to them what neural networks are and how they work. As you know, neurons are brain cells and are responsible in various ways for bodily functions. As we learn (anything), many of these neurons begin to attach to one another to form neural networks which then conduct impulses in a coordinated manner. Everyone develops neural networks differently, and it is unclear how many people have/ should have. But, what we do know is that these networks form based on certain categories, duties, memories, etc.

There could be basic networks for walking, talking, language, tying our shoes, eating, etc. Then, more networks form or existing networks are restructured based on new information or environmental stimulation. The brain’s ability to reorganize information and adapt based on its environment is referred to as neuroplasticity (or neural plasticity). Although adults tend to create and restructure neural networks at a lower rate than children, recent research shows that neuroplasticity is available throughout our lifespan.

Q: Is starting in middle school too late to learn a language? What is it about the adult brain that makes language learning harder? I’m smart; I should be able to do it, right?

A: The short answer is, no, it is never too late to start learning a new language. Despite what people commonly believe, we can create and restructure our neural networks from birth to death. Therefore, practically speaking, we are all capable of learning new languages, and even of being able to speak them well and fluently.

However, it is much easier for children to learn secondary languages than it is for adults (and older adolescents) to learn them. Why? The answer to that is multi-faceted. First, children and adults learn new languages in different ways. Most adults have already put in the time, effort, and practice/ repetition required to learn their primary language. Thus, they are firmly entrenched in their dominant language communities. (Just think about all of the grammar, spelling, and definition lessons we have had across our lifespan). Children, on the other hand, continuously learn new aspects of their primary language on a daily basis. They are, in essence, forming and restructuring their neural networks daily. They have to study thousands of hours to master their language skills. In this sense, they don’t have to do as much “unlearning” as adults do to master a second or even third language, as they are learning them all simultaneously and can create individual neural networks (or branches off existing networks) for each language. They can, essentially, “compartmentalize” their various language abilities.

Make the most of the critical language period.

Also, (and this may be most important), there is what is called a “sensitive period” for learning early in life. Most children learn tons of information—more than we can quantify—during this period, and this includes language. There have, unfortunately, been cases where children were discovered who had been living in isolation and abuse and who were also past the stages of learning in the “sensitive period.” Even with years of language education (after treatment for abuse and malnutrition), these children developed little to no communication skills. Thus, this is suggestive that the sensitive period carries the highest potential for language learning. In fact, brain imaging studies done in 1997 by K.H. Kim et. al. found that people who learned a second language early in life use the same brain region for either language, while people learning a second language after age 11 appear to use different brain regions for each language.

This suggests that individuals who learn languages early have adapted to and become a part of both language communities in an entirely immersive way, while the people who learn a second language later have to try harder to switch between the two languages.

Finally, it can be difficult for adolescents and adults to develop second language skills due to our deeper understanding of social cues and norms. When children are learning a language, it is expected that they will make mistakes; thus, people within the second language community are more open to helping them learn and are more willing to correct their language mistakes. Adults, however, have higher expectations of themselves and others—it is expected for them to have a perfect understanding of whichever language they are speaking. This can have a punishing impact for the adults attempting to learn new languages, causing them to discontinue learning (which means they definitely won’t reach the previously mentioned 10,000 hours of study time).

Q: Can learning a new language confuse my child, if they are not fluent in English yet?
A: Yes and no. Yes, it can confuse them. But, keep in mind that language can be confusing for a child, to begin with. Anytime a child hears/ learns a new word, that word must be integrated into their language neural network. Think about how many words we have to say the same thing. Example: mother, mom, mommy, momma, mum, parent, and child-bearer are all words we use to describe the woman who gave birth to us. Now, add in your mother’s actual given name (as your father might call her on the phone or during an argument). So, what’s her real name? The child must integrate all of these words into one meaning to understand that this is not multiple women but one woman with multiple names.

Considering how many words we actually have to describe one thing (and many things have multiple names), language is very confusing for a child. Therefore, adding another layer of language could compound the confusion some. However, since that confusion already exists, it will not necessarily make learning the second language worse, and it will not necessarily crowd out their primary language skills either.

There has been evidence to suggest that children who are simultaneously learning two languages in early life have more difficulty than their peers in language-based classes once they start formal learning in primary school. However, this deficit typically stabilizes by second grade, during which time these children begin performing at or above grade level again. Also, bilingual children tend to excel in other subjects (i.e. math and science).

Q: What effect would learning a new language have on my child’s brain? Will “wires” get crossed, so to speak?
A: Potentially, yes. However, kids stumble with their language skills quite frequently until they become fluent speakers. Even then, we all have moments when we stutter, lose our train of thought, or become so nervous that nothing comes out right. Adding a second language should not alter this significantly, especially not long-term. See also: the information included in the first question about the use of the brain regions.

Q: Are some foreign languages better than others to learn at a young age? Why or why not?

A: In countries with a specified national language (countries other than the US), the children are typically taught English at an early age to ensure the children will be competitive in the world marketplace. For those of us who start out speaking English, this sounds great. We already have the competitive edge. Except…now we don’t HAVE to learn a new language, which means we still aren’t as competitive as everyone else. So, how do we go about picking the right language? This does not have an easy answer. Unless the parents are already bilingual and speak two languages in the home, the parents have to make a choice regarding which language their child should learn. However, most people who learn a new language should study a language they enjoy or are interested in. When children are small, it’s hard to determine which language this would be. So, often, the language is picked arbitrarily.

How did you choose the target language for your child?

For native English speakers, some languages that will be easier to learn are those in the same language family (Indo-European). Within the Indo-European family, there are several subgroups. English is part of the Germanic subgroup, and some of the sister languages to English are German, Icelandic, Swedish, and Norwegian. Thus, these would be the easiest for native English-speakers to learn. However, taking a trip through history, such as looking at the Norman invasion of England in 1066, shows that the modern-day English has been influenced by many languages that fall under the Romance and Celtic subgroups as well.

Thus, it is also easier for native English-speakers to learn French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and, in some cases, Gaelic. Overall, then, these sister language and other related languages may be faster and easier to learn and maintain long-term (for native English-speakers).

On the other hand, some languages in the Sino-Tibetan language family—particularly Mandarin Chinese—are especially hard for native English-speakers to learn. The syntax and grammar of the language are difficult to master, and oftentimes, it is extremely hard for English speakers to accurately pronounce the sounds and intonations of the languages. These aspects of these languages are highly important, though, as the languages may have a single word that has three very different meanings based on the intonation of the sounds. Non-native speakers can spend several years studying Mandarin and still not fully grasp the language; often, a move to Taiwan or China is needed to ensure the best results. Therefore, the decision to have your child learn an Asian language, especially Mandarin, should not be taken lightly. It will require a lot of hard work and dedication on the part of both the child and the parent. If the child is successful at learning the language, however, it will be drastically easier to learn any other third or fourth language. Of note, though, if your child is learning Mandarin as a second language, it would not be wise to add a third language until they have FULLY mastered Mandarin.

Q: I hired a babysitter or nanny, and they only speak the target language to my child, but my child looks confused. Is this affecting their reasoning ability?
A: In some ways, yes, though probably not the ways about which you are worried. Research has shown that children as young as seven months old pay more attention to sentences with unfamiliar structure than to sentences with a familiar structure. Part of the reason your child may appear confused is because he or she is trying to reason out why the two languages are structured differently. This is likely especially true if the parent(s) speak only one language in the home. Most of his or her day will be spent speaking with his or her parent(s). When the parents speak the primary language, he or she is going to be more familiar with, and thus more comfortable with, the structure, intonation, and cadence of the primary language.

Hiring a babysitter who speaks the target language can be an affordable language option.

Therefore, when the babysitter uses the secondary language, it may sound (for lack of a better word) foreign and strange. But, the more (consistent) exposure your child has to the secondary language, the less strange it will seem and the more open he or she will be to the idea that the basic aspects of each language are different. As your child become more fluent with the secondary language, he or she will begin to appear less and less confused.

Ultimately, if the parents do not speak the secondary language, having a babysitter or nanny who does can help the language learning process, as the child will have an immersive experience with both languages.

Q: Cognition and language, what’s the connection?
A: There are two primary levels of language: language comprehension and language production. For language comprehension, there are also two layers. First, there is what is referred to as parsing, which is an analysis of the syntactical or grammatical structure of the sentences. In general, this does not require much cognitive interpretation. The sentence either makes sense, or it doesn’t. A sentence like, “Girl to far boy run and,” makes no sense because it does not match up with our understanding of grammar and syntax. Therefore, we can either disregard it as unimportant or ask additional questions to somehow find an understanding.

The second layer of language comprehension depends heavily on cognition, however. The second layer refers to pragmatics or the study of ways in which language is used and understood in the real word. In other words, a study of the intended meaning of the words being spoken. Let’s take the phrase “good job” as an example. A young girl wins the spelling bee she has been practicing all month for, and her parents give her a big hug and say, “Good job!” On the other hand, two brothers are playing and running through the house (which they know they are not supposed to do), and the younger brother accidentally bumps a table and a lamp breaks. The older brother says, “Oh, good job!” In the first scenario, the phrase “good job” conveys pride, joy, and excitement, but in the second one, “good job” expresses sarcasm and frustration. To understand those nuances, though, we have to cognitively reason through the preceding events and potential outcomes.

As for language production, less information is known about how it intertwines with cognition. However, there are some basic things to consider. First, language production, whether written or spoken, is goal-directed. We are trying to convey something to other people. In doing this, we may be trying to be socially acceptable, friendly, aloof and standoffish, funny, desirable, interesting, coquettish, etc. To fully convey these ideas, though, you have to have an understanding of those ideas and also how to accomplish them through language production. This understanding comes from cognition—not just thoughts about yourself and how you are portraying yourself, but also about others and receptive they might be. Thus, language and cognition are intertwined.

Also, when learning a new language, cognition is a key asset. Why? Because you have to understand the social norms that accompany that language, as well as the appropriate intonation to convey the right meanings. For example, an upward inflection at the end of a sentence in one language could signify that the person is asking a question (without using the equivalent to the 5 W’s and H), while in another language, it could change the entire meaning of a word, thus changing the meaning of the sentence.

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Q: Besides social and cognitive benefits, why would I teach my child another language?

By learning and speaking two languages keeps the brain active.

A: Social and cognitive benefits are the primary benefits. However, research suggests that the more children learn, particularly with language, during the previously mentioned “sensitive period,” they are more likely to be academically successful, score higher on intelligence tests, use critical thinking, be creative, and have mental flexibility. Also, learning a third or fourth language becomes much easier for children who already have a solid foundation of two languages. Also, the process of learning and speaking two (or more languages) keep the brain actively learning, and some preliminary studies have shown that, for this same reason, learning multiple languages throughout one’s life can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Q: Languages without alphabets – good idea to introduce to English-speaking kids or not? Won’t it be too hard?

A: It’s not necessarily a good or a bad idea. There are upsides and downsides. First, most children learn English phonetically, and it is much easier to learn phonics when there is an accompanying alphabet—“This letter makes this sound; These letters together make that sound.” This could make it difficult for children to learn languages without alphabets because they don’t have a corresponding “letter” for this or that sound. However, some children learn using sight words, which entails showing them a picture or single word, and they learn the word based on what it looks like.

For English, learning by sight words is not a good long-term solution because children never learn how to sound out unfamiliar words, which could hold them back from excelling later. For learning a language without alphabets, however, this a great method, as the children essentially learns these languages in a way similar to learning sight words in English. Of note, whether learning sight words in English or another language, it should be known up front that being presented with an unfamiliar word and no way of sounding it out could lead to frustration.

In addition, learning languages without alphabets may not significantly impact the child from learning to speak that language. However, it could affect their abilities to learn to read and write in that language.

Since real language fluency comes from being able to speak, read, and write the language, this could be a barrier for the child that might make learning that language frustrating and discouraging. This, in turn, could demotivate the child from continuing to learn the language. Therefore, it is essential for the child’s parent(s) to be encouraging and understanding throughout the language-learning process.

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