Language acquisition

According to a study at UCLA, reported on EurekaAlert!, young children acquiring language benefit most from conversations. Reading them stories and talking to them are also helpful, but two-sided conversations have much stronger effects on their language development.

A study of language use in 275 families looked at the affects of conversation, adult monologueing, reading aloud and watching TV. It found that the one with the greatest positive effect on language development was conversation, which had up to six times more benefit than the other activities, while watching TV had neither positive nor negative effects.

The more children take part in conversations, the more opportunities they have to learn from their mistakes and use new words. The interactions of conversation are also important for social, emotional and cognitive development.

Foreign accents

At the moment I’m writing an essay on the acquisition of foreign pronunciation. There seems to be a widespread belief that people who start learning a language at an early age are more likely to speak it with a native accent, while those who learn languages as adults tend to speak them with foreign accents. The essay is exploring whether this is true, and what factors contribute to the acquisition of native-like pronunciation.

While there’s plenty of evidence indicating that the younger you start learning a language, the more native-like your pronunciation will be, there are exceptions to this – some adults manage to acquire native-like pronunciation in foreign languages, while not all children do so. Other factors that seem important include the length of time you’ve spent in a country where the language is spoken, the amount of exposure you get to the language, how much you use your first language, whether you have a talent for oral mimicry, and how important it is for you to speak the language like a native. Other factors don’t seem to be as important.

In my case, I aim to speak languages with as little foreign accent as possible, and am reasonably successful in this. I think I have a good ear for languages, which might be related to my musical abilities, and am quite good at oral mimicry. I find that mimicking the way foreigners speak English and doing the same when I speak their language helps.

Do you speak an foreign languages with a native-like accent? What has helped you to do so.

Language mainly a cultural phenomenon

A report I found the other day suggests that language is most likely to be mainly a cultural phenomenon and that any genetic underpinnings for language probably pre-date the emergence of human language.

Researchers in the UK and USA modelled how aspects of language might have been encoded genetically and concluded that this was very unlikely to have occured given the way human culture changes. For linguistic traits to become encoded in the genes they have to provide a selective advantage and there has to be a stable language envirnoment. Human languages change too quickly for this to happen, and modern humans haven’t existed for long enough either. Therefore they believe that language evolved culturally and that the existence of a genetic language module is unlikely.

They also argue that if human populations in different parts of the world had evolved separate, incompatible language modules, they wouldn’t be able to learn one another’s languages. This is obviously not the case.

Mimetic bootstrapping

Yesterday I went to an interesting talk on Japanese mimetic words, which are onomatopoeia (擬声語 giseigo / 擬音語 giongo) or words connected to actions, emotions or states (擬態語 gitaigo). For example, くすくす (kusu kusu) – to giggle,ぐずぐず[する] (guzu guzu [suru]) – to procrastinate or dawdle.

Researchers in Japan have found that Japanese mothers use a much higher proportion of mimetic words with young children (60%) than with adults (10%), and their experiments found that children find mimetic verbs (those that use sound symbolism) easier to learn than non-mimetic verbs. They call this process mimetic bootstrapping. They also tested English-speaking children and adults using Japanese mimetic verbs and found that they were able to guess their meanings above the level of chance.

They also mentioned that mimetic words are not just found in Japanese – they are in fact found in the form similar to gitaigo in many of the worlds languages, though are rare in Indo-European languages.

Adjusting to a new language environment

Research undetaken at Michigan State University has found that girls can find it more difficult than boys to adjust to a new social and linguistic environment, according to an article on Science Daily.

The study was of 3-6 year olds at an international school in Beijing where the children, from 16 different countries, are in immersed in Mandarin and English. Most of them are learning at least one new language, and the researchers found that the girls generally had more trouble adjusting to the new environment than boys.

Previous studies have found that girls usually have better social and linguistic abilities than boys, however the girls in the Beijing study who could not understand their teachers or the other children tended to have more behavioural problems than the boys.

The study also showed that children find it harder to learn a new language than is generally thought. The popular idea is that children soak up new languages like sponges without too much effort, however this isn’t necessarily true.

Baby talk

Our brains are wired to recognise repeated auditory and visual patterns, an ability that possibly evolved as a way to detect the non-random sounds made by predators, and which is also used in language acquisition.

According to a report on, researchers from Canada, Chile and Italy have done studies of newborn babies in Canada and Italy using brain scans to discover which parts of the babies brains are active when they hear words, and whether they react differently to different words. They found the part of babies’ brains that responds most to language is the same part, the temporal lobes, used for language processing in adults, and that babies react most to words with repeated syllables, such as mama, dada and banana.

One of the researchers, Judit Gervain of the University of British Columbia, believes that rudimentary language structures already in place from birth, and that it’s easy for a baby to attach meaning to the words like mama and dada.

Reading baby

According to an blog post I found today, teaching a baby sign language can help him or her to learn to read at an very early age.

The post is about a 17 month old girl who can read, as she demonstrates on the video embedded in the post. Her parents, who are both Speech Pathologists, have taught her American Sign Language as well as English and have encouraged the development of her language skills, though they haven’t drilled her in reading. Learning sign language can also help children develop their spatial and visual abilities apparently.

Have you heard of any other similar cases?

Soaking up languages like a sponge

A report I found today talks about a school in Seattle called sponge which aims to teach babies and children four languages – Spanish, Mandarin, French and Japanese – through play, songs, stories, etc. They have teachers who are native speakers of the languages they teach and take children from as young 5 months and up to 5 years old.

This sounds like an interesting approach to language teaching and I’m sure that children will benefit from this multilingual environment. I wonder whether they’ll become fluent in all the languages though – they may not get sufficient exposure to each to acquire them fully. Perhaps that isn’t the point of the school.

Word of the day – lullaby

Lullabies, from the Middle English lullen, to lull, + bye, are soothing songs usually sung to babies to lull them to sleep. An alternative name is berceuse, from the French for lullaby or “cradle song”.

According to an article I found today, lullabies are not only a good way to get babies to sleep, but can also help with their language development.

A study at the University of Warwick has found that babies whose parents sing to them regularly tend to develop language and communication skills earlier than babies whose parents don’t sing to them. Lullabies help babies to relax and get them used to hearing vocalisations and verbal sounds. They can also help parents to bond with their babies and to relax.