On July 20th, 2017 we learned about

Babies pick up second languages better when spoken to in “parentese”

Baby brains are language sponges. Among all lessons the world offers a tiny child, from gravity’s effect on spoons to how expressive adults can be about picking those spoons up, babies are also doing their best to make sense of everything people around them are saying. This is true even when more than one language is being spoken by the baby’s household, which is how most bilingual people pick up their first and second languages. Beyond the practical upside of being able to speak with a wider range of people in the world, being bilingual has been linked to a number of cognitive benefits. Since not everyone has a chance to grow up in a bilingual household, researchers have been looking at ways to help more children learn more languages.

Fortunately, while the ability to learn a language seems to be part of human genes, the specific language you learn is not. That bit of cultural information can be shared from anyone, and often babies will learn a second language from child care providers, schools, or the local population in general if parents speak a different language at home. There are also programs and classes, even for the very young, to help pick up a second language. As an experiment, a sort of minimal language course was established to help Spanish speakers in Spain learn English, and the results show that full immersion isn’t necessary for a child to make progress.

Learning languages in just one hour a week

The experimental class lasted 18 weeks, but it only met for one hour a week. During that hour, instructors catered to the type of interaction the participating 7- to 33-month-olds would receive at home. This meant that rather than more formal practice and instruction in English, the babies and toddlers were taught with something closer to the baby talk their parents were using at home to teach them Spanish. The idea was that those types of interactions aren’t just fun for the babies, but they’re actually something human brains have evolved to expect in order to learn to speak.

To evaluate the effectiveness of this “parentese” approach, children were outfitted with special vests that recorded their speech, both in the experimental class and a more traditional English class offered by the Madrid school system. Researchers then tallied up how many English words the kids used, and how often they used them. To see what stuck, their English was evaluated again 18 weeks after the instruction ended. The results showed that parentese worked better with these young kids, and their English was stronger at the end of 36 weeks, with those kids having retained around 74 words compared to the 18 words retained by more traditional students. Importantly, this held true even for kids from very different backgrounds— kids’ brains from both higher and lower income neighborhoods responded well to this type of instruction.

This doesn’t necessarily prove that these kids will all speak English fluently in a couple of years, but it does show that learning a second language doesn’t require intense investments of energy. Most likely, it means that the best way to teach a language is to use the tools evolution has created for a baby’s or toddler’s brain during this crucial developmental period when they’re primed to learn.

Source: New Study Shows How Exposure To A Foreign Language Ignites Infants’ Learning, Scienmag

On February 2nd, 2017 we learned about

Even brief exposure to a language can offer bilingual benefits later in life

When my daughter was around one-and-a-half, she started going to a daycare that was run by a native Russian speaker. Many of the other families at the daycare were Russian, and so it was a place of daily exposure to a second language. At home, while we could speak a little Russian, we spoke English, leaving our toddler to try and figure out the two languages at the same time. Russian words understandably lagged behind English, but eventually my daughter was able to speak with a pretty good accent, at least to my non-native ear. Once she left the daycare though, my daughter’s second language quickly faded, and she now says she doesn’t remember more than one or two words, despite having once been capable of simple conversations.

New research suggests that some of that Russian, or at least the sounds required to listen and speak, are likely retained in my daughter’s brain. Rather than track my daughter, studies looked at children born in Korea but then moved to the Netherlands as babies or toddlers. Nobody expected these kids to retain any vocabulary, but tests found that they did hold on to Korean pronunciation when they needed it.

Saying specific sounds

With a pool of both Korean born and non-Korean born Dutch speakers, participant were asked to take Korean language pronunciation tests. While many languages have some overlapping sounds, or phonemes, it’s not unusual that some sounds don’t intersect. In these tests, there was particular interest in “p”, “t” and “k” sounds, which have three variations each in Korean, two in English, but only one in Dutch. Test participants were asked to vocalize these phonemes, and then had their pronunciation rated by native Korean speakers.

The tests showed that children who had had some exposure to native speakers as babies, even for as little as three months, could pronounce the Korean-specific sounds better than people who were first exposed to them later in life. This contracts some language acquisition research that has indicated that these sounds were slowly amassed and mastered a baby’s brain, only being ready for use at around 12 months of age when many people say their first real words. Instead, it seems that even brief exposure to different sounds can make a lasting impression, and that that information can be retrieved later in life.

So if my daughter ever gets back into it, she’ll probably be able to speak Russian with a better accent than I ever will. Even if she doesn’t end up passing for a native speaker, she’ll still have some benefits from having listened to them at an early age.


My three-year-old said: A goat is a коза!

Oh right— he goes to the same daycare, so he’s in the middle of all this as well. We’ll see if he sticks with it or is English-only by Kindergarten too.

Source: Infants Exposed to Languages Can Retain Them Later in Life by Greg Uyeno, Live Science

On January 13th, 2016 we learned about

Making sense of our language’s lack of scents

If vocabulary reflects a culture’s interests, then we really don’t care about smells. English has multitudes of terms for how things look, and can even offer a variety of ways to see, gaze, stare, observe, gape, gawk or witness them. Smells seem to take a back seat to our other senses, with only a small handful of words that only apply to how things smell, like stinky, fragrant or musty, and even stinky gets co-opted for other purposes now and then. Otherwise, we just compare smells to their sources without getting into much more nuance than that. This isn’t surprising considering how sophisticated and primary human vision is, but it two Southeast Asian populations show that this bias may be cultural instead of physiological.

Specifying smells

The Jahai people of Malaysia and the Maniq of Thailand both have a wider variety of terms used exclusively to describe smells. While these vocabularies don’t necessarily rival the number of visual experiences in English, they’re enough to help shape the thoughts and experiences of their speakers. With as few as 15 words for different smells, these peoples can organize and categorize types of smells in ways that English speakers would never consider. For instance, the word itpit describes the smell of an otter-like animal called a binturong, some soap, flowers and the durian fruit. English would best approximate the smell by saying it’s “like” popcorn, but to a native speaker itpit is as elemental as saying something is red in English.

This degree of sophistication in language has shaped the Jahai and Maniq peoples’ lives to a degree. Everything from customs to cooking are influenced by the heightened degree of odor-awareness, with greater concerns over when smells from foods or people might be mixing in an unwanted way. Tests also indicate that both populations are better at identifying smells than Westerners, possibly just as a result of paying more attention to them.

Classifications from chemistry

Beyond cultural differences, these terms for smells may offer clues about chemistry as well. In the same way that potentially harmful substances are often lumped together as having bad or gross smells, pleasant smells might unintentionally be groupings of other key ingredients. Itpit, the popcorny, binturong smell, is largely used to describe flowers and plants with medicinal qualities. If a common ingredient can be found in each item, our idea of what constitutes a ‘pleasant’ smell may have originated from something as utilitarian as medicinal qualities of flowers and herbs.

Source: Why Do Most Languages Have So Few Words for Smells? by Ed Yong, The Atlantic