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  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 9:00am
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BETWEEN THE LINES

Between the lines: why bilingualism is child's play

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2014, 10:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2014, 10:04am

A power couple in neuroscience, professors Patricia Kuhl and Andrew Meltzoff were in Hong Kong recently to give a talk on their respective areas of expertise - emotional quotient and intelligence quotient - and the role of each in language acquisition.

The US researchers, who have accumulated a vast amount of data on how babies learn, have presented their findings not only to the Education Bureau, but also to the Clinton and Obama administrations, as well as governments and school boards across Europe and the US.

Language is not the same as communication. Babies can cry to communicate their needs, but until they are able to think about, play with and use words, they have no language skills. Language allows us to talk about the past and project our thoughts into the future. Language acquisition is the most complex brain process.

It is difficult to acquire language later in life because the brain loses its elasticity. In terms of learning new languages past the age of seven, Kuhl posits that the "window of learning" stays open longer for children who were exposed to different languages as babies.

In theory, a 15-year-old growing up in a bilingual environment such as Hong Kong will learn any new language more readily than one who has only ever been exposed to one language.

Meltzoff's leading research supports a growing body of evidence that bilingual people have an advantage when it comes to executive functions, specifically inhibitory control and task switching. Greater task-switching skills can be explained as a natural extension of bilingual people's ability to switch between two languages.

It is difficult to acquire language later in life because the brain loses its plasticity

More interesting is inhibitory control, or better self-control, and the ability to delay gratification. Meltzoff found bilingual people tend to have a highly-developed medial prefrontal cortex - the area of the brain that deals with inhibitory control. We use executive functions when we perform activities like planning, organising, strategising and paying attention to and remembering details.

Using sophisticated brain scans and a wide range of laboratory experiments, Kuhl found early language skills predict future reading abilities, and skills not developed early are difficult to remediate later on.

To support children's early language skills, parents are encouraged to speak clearly, age appropriately and frequently to their children. If the best students are those who exhibit strong language skills and inhibitory control, then bilingual students will have a better chance of success in school. For a more in-depth study, The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind by Alison Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl sets forth their detailed studies and findings.

During their visit to Hong Kong, Kuhl and Meltzoff were amused by the contrast between attitudes toward bilingualism in this city and those in the United States, where they are based.

In the US, many parents and educators worry about introducing a second language before a child has mastered his first language. "Won't early bilingual environments confuse the child and cause language delay?" they ask.

In Hong Kong, parents and educators ask these two experts for advice on the best way and a time frame to introduce third, fourth and even fifth languages to children.

Annika Bourgogne's newly published Be Bilingual - Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families dispels concerns about premature second-language acquisition and provides useful tips for parents, including those of us who already embrace multilingualism. Keen parents can go even further, like d'Armond Speers who spoke only Klingon, the invented language from Star Trek, to his son from birth to age three.

Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me a Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving children's literacy by reading aloud to them. Visit bringmeabook.org.hk

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