Kids, Language & Brains


Ancient Obsession: Chocolate

Chocolate traces its ancestry to the cacao trees of Central and South American.  Until the Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century, the fruits of the cacao trees were exclusively enjoyed by the native populations.  The Field Museum of Chicago, led by curator Jonathan Haas of the Dept. of Anthropology, decided to show visitors that chocolate started out as much more than a confection.  In the hands of the Mayans and Aztecs, chocolate was not sweetened but flavored with chilies.  It was in the Old World that sugar was added and once the secret was out, chocolate became the favorite sweet treat throughout Europe. Biarritz in France was a major port of arrival for chocolate from the New World and to this day, some of the best European chocolates originate in this part of France.  Chicago Tribune, 2/13/02.


The Debate Goes On… 2

In a letter challenging some of Prof. Yu's conclusions, the writer points out how rare it is for young children to have early access to opportunities to acquire a 2nd language.  Yet, as the writer goes on to observe, older children and even adults can and do learn English quite well. Therefore, the writer prefers the concept of an optimal period rather than the too-limited window of opportunity perspective.   In this writer's estimation, fully recognizing the value of early 2nd language exposure need not rule out the real possibility of later learning.               Middlebury Magazine 73#3, summer 2000.


The Debate Goes On… 1

While much 2nd language learning research focuses on the window of opportunity perspective, there is far from complete agreement that 2nd language learning can only be done earlier, never later. Clara Yu, Professor of Linguistics at Middlebury College is on the early learning side of the argument.  She is convinced that unless young children hear the sound of another language while still capable of perfect hearing and imitation, they won't become natural speakers of the 2nd language.  She has enlisted graduate students and staff members of Middlebury's language schools in Madrid and Beijing to collect recordings of Spanish and Chinese parents as they bathe, sing to, dress, feed and play with their infants. Participating American parents then find these recordings on the Internet and download them to use with their young children.  While Prof. Yu is an accomplished linguist, she regrets not having learned English, French and German earlier and knows she will never speak these languages as naturally as her own.  Middlebury Magazine 74#2, spring 2000.


Bilingual Education As a Game 2

For Prof. Titone, who saw children's language learning and play as inseparable, children's needs and interests are the keys teachers can use as they work to unify speech and play so children can gain control of what is around them.  Like one's mother tongue, a foreign language is a means of oral communication which is learnt, particularly at an early age, by listening, speaking and doing.  Children's willingness to speak in a 2nd language is motivated by their need to carry out functions and actions they themselves have chosen.  Therefore, children's actual situations need to be integral to the planning so they can learn language in its natural progression, connected to individual activities. A satisfactory 2nd language course must contain those language tasks which will stimulate children's curiosity and develop their ability to express their thoughts, feelings and desires.  


Bilingual Education As a Game 1

Renzo Titone, the late Italian professor of Applied Psycho-linguistics, shared many rich insights on how children learn a 2nd language.  He has argued that even in the earliest phases of 2nd language learning, when children are still quite limited in the structures and vocabulary they know, simple games are a precious resource.  In his eyes, group games lend themselves well to teaching 2nd languages when taught in situations where they can be introduced and used naturally.  He urged a shift in focus from nouns to verbs,  identifying verbs as the natural building blocks for growth in 2nd languages.  And while he appreciated the value of a rich variety of materials aids, he clearly emphasized quality over quantity. His test for the quality of teaching aids:  how well they encourage children to express themselves in speech.