Wednesday, February 22, 2012

the fluently bilingual brain

The subjects in Zhang’s experiments were all Chinese students at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. For the study, each person was shown pairs of words. The first word flashed on the computer screen so quickly that the person didn’t realize they’d seen it. The second word appeared for longer; the person was supposed to hit a key indicating whether it was a real word as quickly as possible. This was just a test to see how quickly they were processing the word.
The trick was this: Although everything in the test was in English, in some cases, the two words actually had a connection – but only if you know how they’re written in Chinese. So, for example, the first word might be “thing,” which is written 东西in Chinese, and the second might be “west,” which is written 西in Chinese. The character for “west” appears in the word “thing,” but these two words are totally unrelated in English.
Zhang found that, when two words shared characters in Chinese, participants processed the second word faster – even though they had no conscious knowledge of having seen the first word in the pair. Even though these students are fluent in English, their brains still automatically translate what they see into Chinese. This suggests that knowledge of a first language automatically influences the processing of a second language, even when they are very different, unrelated languages.

All bilingual children – regardless of the languages they speak – show cognitive advantages over their English-only peers, although they may experience weakness in areas like vocabulary acquisition, finds a new study out of York University...

(D - I have mentioned before that very early second language acquisition can contribute to a stutter.)

The study reports that bilingual children differ from each other and from monolingual children in how they develop language and cognitive skills through the early school years. Children who grow up speaking two languages generally have slower language acquisition in each language than children raised speaking just one language. However, they have better “metalinguistic” development that gives them a deeper understanding of the structure of language, a skill that’s important for literacy. They also perform better on tests of non-verbal executive control, which measure the ability to focus attention where necessary without being distracted, and to shift attention when required.


D - executive control is a huge predictor of academic and workplace success! This trumps the other minor drawbacks of a bilingual upbringing. Bilingual are a bit slower to access unilingual-specific material.

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