Academics & Research

Language research to influence education


The Laboratory for the Neural Bases of Bilingualism has published a new research study on bilingualism and how new languages are assimilated in the brain.

The six-month research explained why certain individuals were better at detecting speech sounds instead of vocabulary words. The different possible factors ranged from socioeconomic status, genetics and even musical ability. Director of the LNBB and developmental psychology professor Arturo Hernandez used brain activity to determine whether bilinguals are better than monolinguals at learning a new language.

“I would hope the results of this research would allow us to dramatically change the time at which we introduce a second language and the method that we use, such as a stronger emphasis on learning the sounds of a language rather than learning vocabulary and memorizing it for a test,” Hernandez said.

The research study indicates that bilinguals have proven to be better vocabulary learners. They have to learn more words, allowing their brains to stretch, which is something underestimated by many. It is easier to learn Romance languages in six months, as compared to Arabic and Chinese, which can take two years to learn. The best time to introduce a new language would be before the age of 20.

Hernandez hopes that by using speech as its basis, the educational system will begin teaching foreign languages at a younger age to yield better results.

“We underestimate the importance of speech. Everyone becomes interested in vocabulary, grammar rules and reading and do not think about speech,” Hernandez said.

Though knowing several languages may be important for development, it doesn’t boost auditory development, according to post-doctoral researcher at the LNBB Pilar Archila-Suerte.

“We surprisingly found that there is no advantage of bilingualism in the auditory domain. Instead, we found that some individuals, regardless of their monolingual or bilingual status, have a better-equipped neural system that allows them to more accurately perceive phonetic features in novel speech stimuli,” Archila-Suerte said.

Although it is difficult for educators to teach, Hernandez feels the best program for children to learn a new language is dual-immersion. In this program, children are placed half the day learning one language and the other half of the day learning a second language.

“This is the program they use in California, Chicago and even in some schools in Houston, but it is not the norm here because it is hard to teach and test,” Hernandez said.

For schools, it can be quite challenging to teach a new language, but parents’ involvement can help the process immensely. For psychology senior Emilio Ontiveros, the research hits home.

“As a father, I didn’t feel they needed to learn Spanish. I find the research helpful in understanding why my children (have) difficulty learning to speak Spanish,” Ontiveros said.

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  • Matthew Showman

    One challenge for the US is choosing languages for study, immersion or otherwise. Whereas for many countries, English would be the obvious second language, the US has no clear choice. Spanish, given the proximity to Latin America? Chinese, given the economic and political state of today’s world? French, given that it’s still a widely spoken language and isn’t as difficult as Chinese? There’s no one language that would be a clear winner.

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