The Gift of Learning Two Languages

MeAt5Over most of my life, I’ve often wondered about my ability to learn languages quickly and easily. Was it because of speaking Chinese first as a child? Was it because of adding a second at an early age? Or maybe it was our unique upbringing? A recent article posted on MedicalXpress about a new study about Chinese children learning a second language stirred up a lot of personal memories again about growing up Chinese.

We never spoke English at home until I started school because Mom never really learned much English in all her years in Canada. I still remember being dropped off in Kindergarten when I was nearly 6 because my birthday was in December and my entire English vocabulary included my name, address and phone number, and a few choice words like ‘bread,’ ‘butter’ and ‘milk.’

A week later, I was put into a small room with a couple of other kids and we were all given a small workbook with pictures on each page. I had no idea what the teacher was saying to us but I do recall her making sounds like “Bzzz! Bzzz!” and I would circle a picture of a bee on the page. A day or so later, I was taken to another classroom where the kids got up one-by-one – as trained – and introduced themselves to me in English:

“Hello, my name is Vannie.”

“Hello, my name is Connie.”

“Hello, my name is…” until everyone in the class had introduced themselves to me. Not that I had any clue as to what they were saying to me at that time nor did I even know what to say back!

Turns out it was some basic IQ test and they had shoved me into Grade One! No idea how I managed to pass that test. And no one had even notified my Father! Anyway, a few weeks later, I was already learning the alphabet and reading and writing. By the end of Grade One, I was speaking, reading and writing English. By the time we hit Grade Four, all the kids in my class were introduced to French (remember, this was Canada, eh?) and I remember having no problems picking up a third language. And this led me to learning other languages quickly like Latin and Spanish (when I lived in Mexico for nearly a year).

I’ve long suspected that it was learning two completely different languages at an early age that gave me the ability to learn other languages quickly. And even though I’ve been rusty at my other languages, they seem to come back quickly whenever I get immersed back into that culture.

But I’ve been worried about my Chinese language skills because in small part as we only learned a very simplistic version of Cantonese that was native to our tiny region in Southern China. And not using it much for years made me concerned that my Chinese-speaking skills may have just gone away.

Then this study comes out – and there’s hope!

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First language wires brain for later language-learning

December 1, 2015

You may believe that you have forgotten the Chinese you spoke as a child, but your brain hasn’t. Moreover, that “forgotten” first language may well influence what goes on in your brain when you speak English or French today.

In a paper published today in Nature Communications, researchers from McGill University and the Montreal Neurological Institute describe their discovery that even brief, early exposure to a language influences how the brain processes sounds from a second language later in life. Even when the first language learned is no longer spoken.

It is an important finding because this research tells scientists both about how the brain becomes wired for language, but also about how that hardwiring can change and adapt over time in response to new language environments. The research has implications for our understanding of how brain plasticity functions, and may also be important information about creating educational practices geared to different types of learners.

You can read the rest of this article from MedicalXpress by clicking HERE.

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