Bilingualism in Children

The Associated Press: Unraveling how children become bilingual so easily.

Before 7 years of age is the best window of opportunity for bilingualism, or even multi-lingualism, in one’s child.  That’s not news to most people.  Anecdotally, we all are aware of that if we are around children in multi-lingual environments.  For those who’ve taken Linguistics or Psychology will also be fully aware of this window of opportunity.

In fact, before 7 years of age seems to be an important window for many things in child development.  Our brains seem to be the most plastic at that time and can be like sponges to the stimulation in the environment.

At UBC, there is similar work by Dr. Janet Werk, from whom I’ve taken classes.  She does a lot of work with bilingual English-Punjabi/Cantonese/Mandarin infants.  It’s very similar to the work the Dr. Kuhl in the article does.

One interesting new development to me is the use of “motherese” to teach college-age students how to pronounce a sound that is not native to their language.

Recall that Japanese “L” and “R” difficulty? Kuhl and scientists at Tokyo Denki University and the University of Minnesota helped develop a computer language program that pictures people speaking in “motherese,” the slow exaggeration of sounds that parents use with babies.

Japanese college students who’d had little exposure to spoken English underwent 12 sessions listening to exaggerated “Ls” and “Rs” while watching the computerized instructor’s face pronounce English words. Brain scans — a hair dryer-looking device called MEG, for magnetoencephalography — that measure millisecond-by-millisecond activity showed the students could better distinguish between those alien English sounds. And they pronounced them better, too, the team reported in the journal NeuroImage.

“It’s our very first, preliminary crude attempt but the gains were phenomenal,” says Kuhl.

Maybe all our language learning CDs will have to be done in the style of adults talking to babies – only without the “goochi goochi goos.”

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