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.

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.

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.

British English, American English, Antarctic English: How Do Accents Develop?

A group of British researchers spent months alone on the isolated continent of Antarctica.

There, an acoustic analysis was made of their speech characteristics as individuals.

In a matter of months, changes were observed.

The acoustical study created a computational model based partially on a common accent in Antarctica to predict the phonetic changes they expected to hear from this group’s prolonged isolation.

Recorded productions of the participating individuals were then taken and compared to the model.

In some ways, the model predicted the phonetic changes in the individuals’ accents.

Published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, the results suggest that the initial stages of phonetic changes in accent occur incrementally when individuals in isolation interact.

Let’s delve deeper into this example of how accents and phonetics develop across the same language.

Shared Spoken Idiosyncrasies

Defining a spoken accent as “shared spoken idiosyncrasies across a community of speakers,” the study touches upon theories regarding potential evolutionary reasoning behind the development of accents.

Some evolutionists theorize that, due to its difficulty in imitation by outsiders, the function of an accent can allow the in-group to identify imposters, while simultaneously breeding cooperation, coordination, and camaraderie amongst individuals with the same accent.

Children are more apt at developing accents than adults, because the phonetic specifications are highly dependent on precise timing and vocal organ coordination, which is more easily acquired at a younger age.

How Accents Form

In this study, communication density was identified as the primary catalyst for accent formation.

This means that who you talk to and how often you talk to them can influence the early stages of accent formation.

The Antarctic researchers’ unique position of isolation created an environment resembling a microcosm of a former colonial settlement.

There was little-to-no communication with outside groups and yet regular communication with each other.

Being inside this bubble amplified the results.

BrainStuff’s Laurie L. Dove notes that the two primary factors influencing accent are isolation and human nature.

Dove writes,

“Human nature, vague as it sounds, simply refers to our innate love of being in groups. When a human is part of a crowd, they identify membership by wearing certain styles of clothing or eating specific foods. That group of people also may speak a certain way — so distinctly so that an accent becomes part of the group’s identity.”

What else impacts accent formation?

Next week, we’ll talk about social class, migration, and invasion.

The Human Freedom Index: How Free Are You?

Nelson Mandela said,

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

How would you define freedom?

Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Liberales Institut at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom defined it with a metric called the Human Freedom Index.

The Index measures freedoms using 76 indicators, rating countries from 0 to 10, economically and personally, with 10 being the most free.

Economic freedom, for instance, involves an individual’s ability to prosper without government intervention, the ability to make personal economic choices and compete in markets, the protection of personal property, etc.

Personal freedom includes freedom of expression, equality, freedom of movement, security, etc.

Averaging these two fields based on scores for each of these 76 indicators, the Index arrived at the base score for 162 countries.

The Indicators

History shows that human progress takes greater leaps and bounds through human freedom.

As Albert Einstein said,

“For everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.”

So, what human freedoms produce “great and inspiring” creations?

The Human Freedom Index suggests it’s such things as:

Using the most recent sufficient data available for each of these indicators, each nation was rated, averaging an overall score for the country.

The Scores

As you may have guessed, the nations that ranked as the freest are those whose cultural values emphasize personal freedom, many of which were democratic nations.

The top five countries in the 2019 Index were:

  • New Zealand 8.88
  • Switzerland 8.82
  • Hong Kong 8.81
  • Canada 8.65
  • Australia 8.62

The United States ranked 15th with a score of 8.46.

Those countries that ranked lowest tend to be totalitarian, one-party, or authoritarian states (or have historically been). 

The lowest ranked countries were:

  • Syria 3.79
  • Venezuela 3.80
  • Yemen 4.30
  • Sudan 4.32
  • Iraq 4.34

These data points can give you an idea of how you might fare in a foreign culture, based on your own culture’s relative freedoms.

Zookeepers Can Help

We’ve been talking about finding a Zookeeper to help you move in the world as an expat.

One of the reasons you might require one is if human freedoms are more or less restrictive in the country into which you’re expatriated.

Perhaps you’re moving from a country where you enjoy broad human freedom to one that’s restrictive – or vice versa.

The transition either way may be difficult. But having a Zookeeper can ease your integration and ensure you don’t do things wrong, impolite, taboo, or even unlawful.

3 Mechanisms That Bias Our Decision-Making: REVIEW

Why do we make the decisions that we do? How do we rationalize these decisions?

Research is constantly evaluating how and why business managers make the choices we make, which we’ve outlined over the last few weeks.

To sum up, the three main biases discussed:

  • Availability bias – involves making a decision not based on an outcome’s true frequency/probability, but rather on how frequent an event enters the forefront of one’s mind.
  • Representativeness bias – involves judging the likelihood of an event based on how closely it relates to another event – i.e., on a mental model that does not exist in reality.
  • Anchoring bias – involves reaching a decision from an initial set point, often grounded in your culturally-influenced values and norms.

However, these are only a few ways in which culture creeps in to bias our decision-making.

Even our confidence in our decision-making ability is often influenced by culture.

Confidence in the Veracity of Decision-Making Ability

Research shows that, compared to their U.S. counterparts, Mexican managers are exceedingly confident in the veracity of their decision-making.

In a study by Christine Uber Grosse, entitled, “Global Managers’ Perceptions of Cultural Competence,” one Mexican manager explained the differences between leaders in Mexico and America, saying:

“We in Mexico are more colloquial or informal and are not so inclined to statistics. The Americans are very ‘manual-oriented’ and organized and we are more relaxed and ingenious.”

So, while before committing to a decision, U.S. managers expect to hear a complete plan laid out, including costs, a schedule, and the target results, Mexican managers rely more heavily on their gut instinct.

Moreover, when Mexican managers commit and something fails, they are more likely to double-down on that commitment, throwing good money after bad (as U.S. managers might put it).

According to research conducted by J. Frank Yates and Stephanie de Oliveira (“Culture and Decision-making“):

“A high degree of overconfidence has been found among Mexicans relative to Americans (Lechuga & Wiebe, 2011)…Overconfidence was widespread but differed in degree according to region.”

This overconfidence was attributed by the authors not so much to a manager’s judgment in confidence, but rather to differences in ability, as the latter varied substantially across countries.

Simplified Mental Models

Tying this all together with cross-cultural business, knowledge of the biases that influence decision-making – and another’s confidence in their decision-making – will help you navigate another culture’s rationale while also redirecting yours accordingly.

With various worldviews and cultural backgrounds, subjective realities exist, resulting in different mental decision models.

But one thing is universal: managers use their simplified and biased mental models to make their decisions.

Although likely different than your own, their simplified mental model is not irrational; it is based upon their subjective cultural perception and reality, just as yours is.

Oftentimes, no matter how illogical a decision may seem to you, the other is acting rationally within their own cultural framework, their baobab.

So, before concluding that a foreign manager’s decision makes no logical sense, familiarize yourself with the culture, its perception, and its reality.

You may then understand how a manager’s availability, representativeness, and anchoring biases – or any other culturally-influenced bias – enter into their decision-making.

Conformity in Culture: The Colored Pens Study

Say, you’re given a bin of pens.

Most of them are black and a few are blue. Your favorite color to write with is blue.

Which pen would you choose?

This study was conducted by Japanese researcher Toshio Yamagishi and his research team with participants from Japan and the US.

The study involved a default scenario, an initial scenario, a final scenario, and a purchase scenario.

  • Default scenario – participants simply told to choose a pen
  • Initial scenario – participants told they were the first person to choose a pen
  • Final scenario – participants told they were the last person to choose a pen
  • Purchase scenario – participants told they were buying a pen

Considering previous research on the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures, one might think the Japanese would always choose the majority color, due to their preference for conformity, while the American would always choose the minority color, due to their preference to stand out.

The results, however, were a bit more complex.

Preference for Uniqueness

Although the Japanese did choose the majority color and the Americans the minority color in the default scenario, the results between the two cultures were similar in the other three scenarios: the Americans and the Japanese were just as likely to choose either the majority or minority color.

These last three results indicate that both cultures prefer uniqueness in equal measure.

The results also show that each culture, in being the first to choose, is cognizant of other peoples’ desire for uniqueness and, therefore, may be reluctant to offend those who have yet to choose their colored pen.

But when the social situation becomes ambiguous, as in the default scenario, why do the Japanese assume the majority pen, when the results show that they prefer the unique pen just as much as their American counterparts?

This is where the preference for harmony comes in.

Do Not Offend

The default scenario reveals that the Japanese don’t necessarily prefer to conform; after all, they were just as likely to choose unique over conformity in the other three scenarios.

Rather, the Japanese prefer harmony over disharmony.

Yamagishi and his team concluded that the disparity was in the ambiguity: the desire not to offend is stronger in the Japanese than in the Americans, particularly in ambiguous social situations.

And why not offend?

One theory posed by Yamagishi is centered around interpersonal relationships.

Japan is a “closed society” regarding groups and relationships. By this, we mean that it’s considerably more closed to outsiders; if you’re not part of the in-group, you’re not welcome. In this way, it’s harder to replace lost relationships when you’ve offended someone.

The US, on the other hand, is an “open society.” It’s much easier to replace a lost relationship if one has caused offense.

This is why the Japanese avoid offending in ambiguous situations, which may come at the cost of their preferences on occasion. Group loyalty over self-loyalty, as we talked about last week.

The ambiguity of whether your choice of a unique pen may or may not offend someone is balanced against the cost of social rejection.

The result is this strategic and nuanced adaptation under differing scenarios.

How does this apply to the type of management style a culture prefers?

We’ll talk more about that next week.