New studies on how language learning occurs are beginning to chip away at some long-held notions about second-language acquisition and point to potential learning benefits for students who speak more than one language.
"We have this national psyche that we're not good at languages," said Marty Abbott, the director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, in Alexandria, Va. "It's still perceived as something only smart people can do, and it's not true; we all learned our first language, and we can learn a second one."
New National Science Foundation-funded collaborations among educators, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists and linguists have started to find the evidence to back up that assertion. For example, researchers long thought the window for learning a new language shrinks rapidly after age 7 and closes almost entirely after puberty. Yet interdisciplinary research conducted over the past five years at the University of Washington, Pennsylvania State University and other colleges suggests that the time frame may be more flexible than first thought and that students who learn additional languages become more adaptable in other types of learning, too.
"There has been an explosion of research on bilingual-language processing," said Judith F. Kroll, the principal investigator for the Bilingualism, Mind and Brain project launched last month at Penn State's Center for Language Science in University Park, Pa. The five-year, $2.8 million project is intended to bring together neuroscientists, linguists and cognitive scientists to compare the brain and mental processes of different types of bilingual people, such as a Mandarin-English speaker whose languages include different writing systems or a deaf English speaker whose signed and written languages involve different modes of communication.
During the first year of life, a baby starts to specialize in the sounds of his native language and becomes less able to distinguish sounds common only to other languages. University of Washington researchers exposed 9-month-old American babies of native-English-speaking parents to sounds associated with Mandarin either through sessions with a native-Mandarin-speaking tutor or video or audio lessons. At 12 months, babies who had worked with a person recognized Mandarin sounds more accurately than did infants who were exposed to the language through video or audio only.
Likewise, the Washington-based American Association for the Advancement of Science has added a symposium on bilingualism to its 2011 annual conference in February, and the Seattle-based University of Washington this May opened the world's first brain-imaging center adapted to study language and cognition in infants and young children.
"Bilingualism provides a lens for researchers to examine aspects of the underlying cognitive architecture that are otherwise obscured by native-language skill," Kroll said.