The Meaning of Well-Being: A Qualitative Cross-Cultural Study

What does “well-being” mean to you?

Back in 1984, the World Health Organization defined health and well-being as follows:

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.”

This universal definition of well-being differs from subjective well-being, which is how one evaluates one’s own quality of life, how one feels in it, and how one feels they function in it.

Research and literature surrounding subjective well-being focus on happiness, positive affect, and life satisfaction.

Social well-being is more in tune with social behaviors: how one interacts with social institutions and mores, how he/she interacts with others, and how others react to him/her.

Considering these differences, this study comparing well-being constructs between German and Chinese students looked at social support as an indicator of social well-being, and happiness and satisfaction with life as indicators of subjective well-being.

Well-Being Study

It can be assumed that the definitions of the above terms might differ between these two groups, based on their differing cultures, as might the objectives to accomplish each.

Via focus groups and questionnaires, the study assessed perceived social support through rated statements like:

  • “I experience a lot of understanding and security from others.”
  • “If necessary, I can easily borrow something I might need from neighbors or friends.”
  • “I have friends and family who will simply just hug me.”

Similarly, satisfaction was measured through statements like:

  • “The conditions of my life are excellent.”
  • “In most ways, my life is close to my ideal.” 
  • “I am satisfied with my life.”

And, lastly, happiness was measured via statements like:

  • “Some people are generally happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything.”
  • “Some people are generally not very happy. Although they are not depressed, they never seem as happy as they might be.”

The Results

Happiness

Both groups defined happiness criteria as including social contacts, positive emotions, and quality of life. Where the two countries differed was in social contact.

Social contact was the most frequently mentioned aspect in China and the least in Germany.

Another interesting aspect of the way each group viewed happiness was in the angle they took. 

The Chinese groups saw happiness as pursuing a dream/goal and/or seeing it fulfilled, while the German groups saw two types of happiness: uncontrollable (which is designed by luck or fate, for instance) and controllable (as in achieving something). They also specified that happiness is subjective and brief.

Life Satisfaction

Both groups noted different kinds of satisfaction.

First, an individual realistic standard; second, an ideal standard that’s changeable. 

Lastly, they mentioned one’s perception of current satisfaction.

Quality of life was seen by both groups as a significant factor of life satisfaction, but the Chinese students focused on good living conditions (like high salary and economic conditions), while the German students focused on basic needs fulfillment (a home and food, etc.).

The researchers concluded that these differences may be based on the economic focuses of the two countries.

The Chinese groups saw contentment with one’s situation and a positive attitude about life as major contributing factors to life satisfaction, while the German students noted that satisfaction can come with comparing one’s current situation with the social norm or an individual standard.

Perceived Social Support

Chinese students focused on societal support, like charities, companies, and government policies, when discussing sources of perceived social support, while German students focused more on direct social networks.

German students mentioned financial and material support more frequently than their Chinese counterparts.

Both groups mentioned emotional support, while only the Chinese groups talked about “asking for help” indirectly, such as by posting on social media to gain empathy.

This study shows that though the themes of well-being may be universal, the contributing factors to well-being differ across cultures, often depending on cultural values, perspectives, and expectations.

Scientifically-Proven Tips on Learning a Second Language

Learning a language can be difficult.

But it will rewire your brain.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve discussed how the brain grows when learning a second language.

We’ve talked about how the left and right hemispheres process language and how the best approach to learning a language with an old brain is by dropping perfectionism.

This week, we’ll go over some practical tips and tricks for learning a language and improving your memory.

Vamos!

Sleep On It

Language learned just before bedtime ensures better long-term retention, according to a 2016 study in Psychological Science.

The study took two groups, each studying a foreign language 12 hours apart.

One group learned foreign vocabulary – practiced to perfect performance – in the morning and again in the evening.

The other group learned the new vocabulary in the evening, slept on it, and relearned it in the morning.

The study found that not only did the second group demonstrate better retention, but the amount of practice required was reduced by half.

The study concluded:

“Sleeping after learning is definitely a good strategy, but sleeping between two learning sessions is a better strategy.”

Spaced Repetition 

Online language learning sites, like Duolingo and Memrise, are so successful due to their algorithms involving spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition is a memory-strengthening method by which words or phrases are learned at intervals ideally spaced for retention. 

The intervals are small to begin with, reviewing new words several times in a single practice session until they become familiar, and reviewing them again the following day, mixed in with newer words and phrases.

Then, a day, a few days, a week will go by, and you review the word or phrase again.

Soon, you won’t forget them.

Research has proven that spaced repetition can lead to “a nearly threefold improvement of vocabulary learning gains.”

Now, that’s worth repeating.

Test Comprehension Through Content

When you’re comfortable with your basic language skills, incorporating some content into your learning will boost your abilities.

This can be anything from watching a movie in the foreign language to listening to a podcast or reading a news article.

A 2008 study published by Cambridge University Press showed that learning content in a foreign language, as opposed to strictly learning the language itself, can significantly improve the speaking part of language learning.

The study followed two groups – the control group, which studied French via traditional methods, and the experimental group, which studied a civilization course in French – and looked at four aspects of language learning: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

While the experimental group outperformed the control group in speaking, the control group outperformed the experimental group in writing.

So, if speaking is the area you want to target, mixing in some media in the foreign language you’re studying will enhance it.

Part II – Left Brain or Right Brain: Which Side Gets More Exercise in Language Learning?

Both sides of the brain contribute to language learning and expression.

Last week, we found that the left side helps produce speech.

So, what does the right side do?

Let’s take a look.

Right Brain Activated

The left side of the brain is considered the language processing hub.

But when someone suffers a stroke or another injury that impacts the language center in the left hemisphere of the brain, something amazing happens: the right hemisphere takes over.

This made scientists curious as to how much each side of the brain is actually responsible for language processing and production.

This is what they found.

Processing Sounds

Studies have shown that the right hemisphere is specifically triggered when differentiating between sounds.

A study by the University of Delaware taught Mandarin Chinese to 24 native English-speaking adults.

Looking at the students’ brain scans during language acquisition, the study found that the right hemisphere of the brain took center stage when focusing on acoustic details while learning Mandarin Chinese.

Being that the right hemisphere of the brain has been largely overlooked in past language research, University of Delaware cognitive neuroscientist Zhenghan Qi believes these findings can help us understand language learning.

While the right side’s role in language diminishes as the student progresses, in the beginning stages, the right is crucial to pronunciation.

Qi explained:

“It turns out that the right hemisphere is very important in processing foreign speech sounds at the beginning of learning…We found that the more active the right hemisphere is, the more sensitive the listener is to acoustic differences in sound. Everyone has different levels of activation, but even if you don’t have that sensitivity to begin with, you can still learn successfully if your brain is plastic enough.”

Qi explained that adults can train themselves to “become more sensitive to foreign speech sounds.”

Another aspect of right-brain involvement in language was uncovered in the study by cognitive neuroscientist Kshipra Gurunandan, analyzed in last week’s post. 

The study found that the right hemisphere was most active in reading foreign language, followed by listening.

Researchers there also found greater right hemisphere involvement in adults who’d learned more than one language in early childhood versus monolingual adults.

So, while right-brain learners might think they don’t stand a chance at learning a second language, due to the stronger left-brain involvement, these studies tell a different story. 

Left or Right Brain: Which Side Gets More Exercise in Language Learning?

Are you a right-brain thinker? Or a left-brain thinker?

In other words, are you a creative, innovative type (right-brain)? Or are you logical and analytical (left-brain)?

And which side is a stronger language learner?

Never fear: both sides of the brain assist language learning, according to research. 

But to different degrees and in different ways.

Let’s see how.

Left Side Activated

The left hemisphere of the brain stores some 90 percent of our native language.

This is why it’s long been thought that left-brain thinkers may have a better capacity to learn a second language.

The left frontal lobe – specifically Broca’s area – activates the production and articulation of speech.

The left temporal lobe – specifically the Wernicke’s area – influences language comprehension and development.

This does not mean language learning only involves the left side of the brain; both sides work together in the learning and production of language.

Various parts of the brain are activated to degrees, depending on what aspect of language one is learning, whether it’s the lexicon (words), the sounds (phonology), or the syntax (grammar).

Speech

Studies have found that speaking a foreign language largely activates the left side of the brain.

A study by cognitive neuroscientist Kshipra Gurunandan, of the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language, looked at brain scans from Spanish speakers who were learning English or Basque.

Each group performed language tasks, involving reading, speaking, and listening in their native and foreign languages.

No matter the language level of the speaker, the left hemisphere of the brain was primarily activated during speaking tasks, while reading and listening were variable. 

Gurunandan explained:

“In the earliest stages of language learning the native and new languages tended to activate the same hemisphere, while in the more advanced learners they activated different hemispheres. And the switch from the same to the opposite hemispheres was largest in reading, it was slightly smaller in listening and it was non-existent in speaking.”

The researchers believe this left-brain focus during speech specifically is due to the specialized circuits in this hemisphere which control speech production.

The conclusion we draw here is that left-brain learners will have a greater propensity for learning how to speak a second language.

Next week, we’ll discuss where right-brain learners may have an edge.

Immersion Learning & Brain Growth: What Your Brain Looks Like When Speaking a Foreign Language

What happens in our brains when we speak a foreign language?

Do we think in that language?

Do our brains “Google translate” from our native tongue?

Through MRIs and electrophysiology, researchers took a look at the brain to see what visual effects manifest with foreign language learning.

They also analyzed what these effects can tell us about learning a language.

Brain Growth

In an article by Alison Mackey, an MRI study took a look at two groups: young military recruits with a propensity for language and a control group of medical and cognitive science students.

The language groups studied Dari, Arabic, and Russian, while the control group studied other intensive topics but not language.

Taking MRI scans of both the language students and the control group found that certain areas of the brain grew in size for the language group, while those of the control group did not.

Those in the language group who experienced more brain development in the hippocampus of the cerebral cortex (which has a primary role in learning and memory) demonstrated superior language skills to those who experienced more brain development in the motor region of the cerebral cortex (which has a primary role in speaking words).

The ease with which a language student learned, understood, and spoke the language saw a direct correlation with the areas of the brain that grew.

And brain development directly correlated to performance.

Immersion is Key

Another study, noted in an article by Guy Brockless on Bilingua, explored the inner workings of the brain via electrophysiology.

Completed by Professor Kara Morgan-Short at the University of Illinois, the study used an artificial language to identify the differences in the brain’s function when experiencing immersion learning versus rule learning.

Both groups learned the language, but the immersion group learned it via processes similar to native speakers, which is ideal if your goal is native-like fluency.

Morgan-Short said about the study:

“This brain-based research tells us not only that some adults can learn through immersion, like children, but might enable us to match individual adult learners with the optimal learning contexts for them.”

Both studies inform our understanding of how our brains work when learning a second language.

They also indicate that while not all brains work or develop the same during the process, that data can allow language learners to tailor and customize the best methods of language learning for their own personal growth.

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.

Creativity and Cognitivity: How Learning A Second Language Boosts Your Brain

We all know that learning a second language opens up new avenues in your brain.

Learn French, and you’ll soon be turning the roundabout of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Attribution: Josh Hallett

Learn Spanish, and you’ll find yourself rambling down La Rambla.

Attribution: Jinx Vilhas

But how, exactly, does bilingualism influence your brain?

Last week, we saw the effects of second language learning on cognition.

This week, we’ll take a look at two additional studies that confirm that foreign language learning can make you a better learner and thinker.

Figural Creativity

A 1973 study by Richard G. Landry took a look at how learning a second language at the elementary school level can enhance figural creativity.

Landry hypothesized that when completing figural tasks – such as flexibility, originality, and creativity which rely on association, imagery, and other more abstract factors – second language learners have an edge over monolingual learners due to their flexibility in thinking. 

And his results confirmed this theory.

The study showed that the second language group scored significantly higher than the monolingual group on figural tasks, indicating that second language learning lends itself to divergent thinking to better complete these types of tasks.

Learning a second language at the elementary level also provided students with a broader range of linguistic and culturally rich resources which produces varied and fresh ideas.

The conclusion was that second language learning enables children to approach a problem differently, departing from traditional approaches more readily taken by monolingual students.

Cognitive & Language Development

Second language learning doesn’t just boost the creative mind.

A second study, completed in 1991 by Kathryn W. Bamford and Donald T. Mizokawa, examined the differences and degrees of nonverbal problem-solving and native language development between a monolingual classroom of second graders and an additive-bilingual Spanish-immersion classroom.

The study tested native language development between the two classrooms, measured by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-R, and found no significant differences, despite the bilingual group’s Spanish immersion.

However, there were significant differences in problem-solving between the two groups.

Using Raven’s Colored Progressive Matrices, which is a nonverbal test that measures “fluid intelligence”  – or general human intelligence and abstract reasoning – the study found that the Spanish-immersion group had a significant edge over their monolingual peers.

The conclusion drawn:

“The superior control of cognitive processing demonstrated by children in the early stages of additive bilingualism may enhance symbolic reasoning abilities.”

This pair of studies indicate that second language learning can boost both your creative and cognitive thinking at the elementary level.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how these effects evolve in higher academia.

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.