Kids, Language & Brains


So You Think Teaching Spanish to Kids Is a No-Brainer?

Having interviewed a good number of potential foreign language teachers, I'm always a bit shocked by the too frequently expressed view there's no real challenge to teaching children a second language, in this case Spanish.   Evidently, the assumption is that kids, especially younger ones, are not yet able to discriminate so almost anyone with even a smattering of Spanish can teach them!  Tell that to native speakers. Better yet, just try that attitude on young kids. They really are sponges.  They capture sounds perfectly, imitate accurately and embrace the target language with ease and confidence.  Their lack of inhibitions means acquiring another language is a great game for them, a challenging puzzle they jump into fearlessly.


The Surprises Continue

Sharon Begley, science writer, has long focused on the human brain and its flexibility.  She says these days the brain's zoning map--with different neighborhoods assigned different functions--is looking as malleable as putty.  Not only is this plasticity more radical than anyone had imagined, it lasts well into adulthood.  This good news for adults doesn't undermine recognition that the prime time for 2nd language learning is before pubescence when the brain is flooded with hormones.  For our adult brains, lifelong learning is realistic.  Whether learners are older, suffer from reduced ability to discriminate the sounds of speech (as in the elderly and children with dyslexia), our capacity to be retrained is a factor we can count on. Crossword puzzles, playing bridge and other routine mental activities aren't enough to keep the brain learning, however.  Only mental tasks that require intense focus can produce the physical changes that let old neurons learn new tricks.  How about working to master a musical instrument or learning a 2nd language?  These certainly measure up as challenging!


Chess, Anyone?

If you're a chess player and want to speak chess in another language, Chess Pieces in 64 Languages by Finnish chess player Ari Luiro is the place to go.


Idioma de Signos Nicaragense

The sudden emergence of ISN in the 1970's when deaf children in Nicaragua were first brought together in groups speaks volumes about human's built-in language capabilities, according to Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct.   In his view, Nicaraguan Sign Language represents the first and only time we've seen a language created out of thin air.  His book celebrates this proof that the ingredients of language are found in nature rather than nurture, because the inventors (the deaf children themselves)received no prompting or instruction in the surrounding environment.  Ann Senghas et al., Science, October 2004.


Is It Always Impolite To Not Speak English?

Miss Manners gave some interesting reasons why it isn't necessarily rude to speak another language in the presence of English speakers:

  • First, check the motivation to determine whether rudeness is the intent. To assume that people speaking another language in your presence are talking about you is arrogant!
  • Next, remember that objecting to others' speaking another language among themselves is rude on your part.
  • Finally, excuse parents speaking another language in front of their children from any charges of impoliteness:  they may be talking about the child/children or about something not suitable for children's ears.  That is called education and has inspired many a child to learn a foreign language.  Chicago Tribune 8/26/04

Learning Any Language

In a study of 20-month-olds who were learning any of seven languages, researchers found that no matter which language the children were acquiring, their vocabularies were made up mostly of nouns, followed by verbs and then adjectives.  There is a universal order to how children learn language, according to lead researcher Marc Bornstein.  Dr. Bornstein believes children learn nouns first because they name concrete things that can be seen and touched.  Verbs and adjectives are more abstract and many be more difficult concepts for young children's minds to grasp.  NIH Study Results, Child Development, July-August 2004.