Second Language Learning Improves One’s Command of Native Language

Those who fluently speak a second language (or more) are gifted with the opportunity to communicate with many different people and cultures.

But that’s not all.

Studies have shown that learning a second language also improves one’s command over their native tongue.

We’ve examined how language is learned in infancy and, for the past couple of weeks, we’ve discussed how second language learning can improve our cognitive learning and creativity.

While we’ve mainly looked at younger, elementary-school level students when analyzing the effects of second language learning, the positive impacts continue into adolescence and adulthood.

Let’s see what happens.

Greater Academic Success

A 1984 study by Robert Skelton examined the differences in academic achievement between college students who didn’t study a foreign language in high school and those who did.

Both groups of students had the same level of intelligence and the same socio-economic background.

And yet, the foreign language group showed superior academic achievement overall in college than those who had no foreign language experience.

The study concluded:

“Statistical analysis, reason, and the experience of generations force us to the conclusion that the study of foreign language does improve one’s command of his own language, thereby enhancing one’s control of subject matter in the fields in which language is the vehicle of instruction.”

Latin is Best

A further study by Patricia Davis Wiley, published in 1985, explored the same hypothesis and arrived at the same conclusion.

Wiley’s study, too, found a correlation between high school foreign language study and achievement in higher academia. 

High school students who studied Spanish, French, German, or Latin went on to perform better at a college level than their peers of equal academic ability.

In fact, those students who studied Latin proved to achieve the highest levels overall in college success, measured by GPA, and in freshman English grades specifically – possibly because over 60% of English words have Greek or Latin roots.

A 2001 study by Amedeo D’Angiulli of Italian/English bilingual students, ranging from 9 to 13 years old, also showed higher word-reading and spelling skills than their monolingual counterparts.

Do all of these positive aspects of second language learning make you want to become bilingual?

We’ll talk about how to learn a new language next week.

Does Learning Another Language Make You Smarter? Learn Here.

Not only is bilingualism or polyglotism beneficial to cross-cultural relations and integration into a foreign culture, but early language learning has also been shown to boost cognitive abilities across the board.

These past two weeks, we’ve discussed how language is learned through mind-mapping as early as infancy. We’ve also talked about how early foreign language learning can aid phonetic recognition.

But this isn’t the only benefit of learning a foreign language.

Studies show that the cognitive skills of elementary school children are improved by foreign language learning.

While intelligence and cognition aren’t one and the same, they are related and integrated.

Let’s see how.

The Ross Test

The Ross Test is used to analyze abstract and critical thinking skills.

Often, children who are thought to be “gifted” are evaluated using the Ross Test to screen them for inclusion in gifted programs. 

This was one of the tests used in a study by Foster, K. M., & Reeves, C. K., to evaluate the cognitive abilities of foreign language students.

The Study: Cognitive & Metacognitive Processes

The cognitive and metacognitive processes of students learning French as a foreign language in elementary school were measured and analyzed over a two-year period. 

Cognitive abilities are described by sharpbrains as:

“the brain-based skills and mental processes needed to carry out any task; [they] have to do with the mechanisms of how you learn, remember, and pay attention.”

Metacognition is the knowledge of one’s own cognitive processes.

With one 25-student control group that had no French instruction and three French-language groups, studying in the program for varying lengths of time, the study identified how foreign language learning might impact cognitive and metacognitive functions in each group. 

Each French group received a half-hour of French language instruction following a half-hour of English basal reading daily, while the control group simply read in English for an hour.

The Results

Across the board, the foreign language groups scored significantly higher on the Ross Test, including the score of all of its cognitive functions, than did the control group. They also scored higher on Butterfly and Moths test.

Even more impressive is that the foreign language students excelled at evaluation tasks, which, in Bloom’s taxonomy, is one of the highest cognitive skills, just behind “creating.”

Those French language students who studied for the longest time period (24.5 months) also performed the best, while the scores of those who studied for 15.5 months and 6.5 months correlated linearly with that trend.

So, does early foreign language learning make you smarter?

Not directly.

But this study indicates learning a foreign language can give you the cognitive tools to be a better learner in general.

How Exposure to Foreign Language in Infancy Can Aid Phonetic Learning

Exposure to foreign language early on can aid future language learning.

As we explored last week, foreign language development declines rapidly after the first year of infancy.

This is when mind-mapping of language is set, and recognition of foreign sounds becomes “interference.”

But before a year, an infant’s mind can map foreign languages in a way that can help them identify foreign sounds.

In an experimental demonstration of phonetic learning, University of Washington neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl has found that American infants exposed to Mandarin Chinese were able to differentiate between its phonetic elements, but only through social interaction with a human.

The Experiment: “Chee” and “She” 

The Mandarin sounds, “chee” and “she,” are difficult for adult Americans to differentiate.

A pair of studies tested whether infants could distinguish between the two.

In the initial study and the first experiment of its kind, 9-month-old American infants were exposed to Mandarin for less than five hours in a laboratory setting.

Over the course of a dozen 25-minute sessions spanning four weeks, four native speakers – two women and two men – read children’s books in Mandarin and played with the children while speaking.

An English control group did the same.

The infants in the Mandarin group showed an ability to distinguish between the language’s sounds, much more so than those in the control group.

The Mandarin group’s ability to discern between “chee” and “she” was also shown to be equivalent to that of a group of Taiwanese infants exposed to Mandarin for ten months. 

The infants’ ability to differentiate between the sounds lasted for 12 days – and maybe longer, as Kuhl is currently retesting and analyzing months later.

This indicates that short-term exposure to foreign language in infancy can significantly improve foreign language speech perception and retention.

Socializing Companion Study

A companion study exposed a second group of American infants to Mandarin using audiotape and DVD.

The children in this study showed no ability to distinguish between the sounds, revealing that phonetic learning is better learned and retained through social exposure.

Audio and DVD did not offer the same stimulation as a live human. 

In a presentation of the studies’ findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Kuhl said:

“The findings indicate that infants can extract phonetic information from first-time foreign-language exposure in a relatively short period of time at 9 months of age, but only if the language is produced by a human, suggesting that social interaction is an important component of language learning.”

Kuhl also notes that the 9-month period is a sensitive window for language learning, emphasizing the importance of timing.

She also highlighted other aspects of infant abilities in language learning, including:

“…their attraction to ‘motherese’ (a form of exaggerated speech) spoken by adults to babies; the statistical learning that infants engage in by analyzing language; and the ability to follow the gaze of another person to an object to understand what they are talking about.”

Early Language Mapping: How Infants Learn Pronunciation

Why do Americans struggle with differentiating between the “shee” (“west”) and “chee” (“wife”) sounds in Mandarin?

Why do the Japanese struggle with the “l” and “r” sounds in “lake” and “rake”?

University of Washington speech professor Patricia Kuhl has the answer.

Map-Building

Having studied early language development for nearly three decades, Kuhl has a better understanding than most of how and when pronunciation and accents develop.

Before a baby even speaks her first word, a pattern of speaking has formed in the brain, based on her primary caregiver’s speech.

With American, Japanese, Swedish, and Russian infant participants, Kuhl found that vowel and consonant sounds of both native and foreign languages are clearly recognized by children between 6 to 8 months. 

That means an American infant can recognize and respond to the differences in “shee” and “chee,” while the Japanese infant will differentiate between “l” and “r” just as easily as an American.

Head-Turn Study

Kuhl used a “head-turn” study to identify whether infants could recognize these sounds.

While distracting an infant with a toy, the speaker would repeat a sound over and over – “la, la, la,” for instance.

The infant would continue watching the toy until she would hear a different sound mixed in – “la, la, ra”  – which would then light up the toy.

In anticipation of the reward, two-thirds of both Japanese and American 6- to 8-month-old infants would turn to look at the toy when the sound changed.

That ability was lost by the time the child reached one year.

Using the same sounds, a little over half of Japanese infants and nearly four-fifths of Americans would turn to look at the toy by the time the infants had reached a year.

The study concluded that this is when native sounds become the baby’s norm.

Magnet Effect

A Smithsonian article by Edwin Kiester, Jr., throws this map-building into further relief, with Kuhl describing the mapping of the baby’s language brain:

“The baby early begins to draw a kind of map of the sounds he hears. That map continues to develop and strengthen as the sounds are repeated. The sounds not heard, the synapses not used, are bypassed and pruned from the brain’s network. Eventually the sounds and accent of the language become automatic.”

A “magnet effect” further maps the native language, as prototypical sounds are absorbed and interpreted as native, while foreign sounds are discarded as “interference.” 

And what of infants born in bilingual households?

Those infant brains simply draw multiple maps, which is made easier if a specific language is spoken in the pitch, tone, and pronunciation of either caregiver.

This is why foreign languages are difficult to learn into adulthood: your language brain has long been mapped, and it’s a struggle to tune into sounds your brain wiring perceives as “interference.”

But this does not mean it’s impossible.

We’ll talk about the possibility next week.