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Your mother tongue has a lasting effect on your brain – even if you can’t remember it. That’s according to a new study from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and McGill University’s Department of Psychology.

It’s hard to say exactly what this means for our understanding of language acquisition, but it’s an incredible reminder that our first few months of life are so important for our brain development.

MRI images: Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University

Title image: Moonchilde-Struck

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Speaking more than one language is good for the brain, according to new research that indicates bilingual speakers process information more efficiently and more easily than those who know a single language.

The benefits occur because the bilingual brain is constantly activating both languages and choosing which language to use and which to ignore, said Northwestern University’s Viorica Marian, the lead author of the research and a professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders in the School of Communication. When the brain is constantly exercised in this way, it doesn’t have to work as hard to perform cognitive tasks, the researchers found.

“It’s like a stop light,” Marian said. “Bilinguals are always giving the green light to one language and red to another. When you have to do that all the time, you get really good at inhibiting the words you don’t need,” she said.

The study, which will be published online in the journal Brain and Language on Nov. 12 was one of the first to use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to test co-activation and inhibition in bilinguals. Co-activation during bilingual spoken language comprehension, a concept Marian pioneered in 1999, means that fluent bilinguals have both languages “active” at the same time, whether they are consciously using them or not. Inhibitory control involves selecting the correct language in the face of a competing other language.

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My co-worker showed this video in a workshop she presented.  As a teacher of ELL/Bilingual students it was so moving and helpful in understanding what sitting in an English-speaking classroom is like for an ELL.

Educators: Watch this

In the 1920s, Aurora Orozco crossed over from Mexico to Texas — a child of African descent who spoke not a word of English. She was an uneasy transplant.

Many years later, in an essay published in 1999, she recalled attitudes towards students who were caught speaking Spanish in school: “My teacher, Mrs. White, would make me stay after class. With a red rubber band, she would hit my poor hands until they nearly bled.”

Today’s students don’t have it so bad. Texas recently started offering a “State Seal of Biliteracy.” It recognizes high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in one or more languages in addition to English.

On The High School Diploma: A ‘Bilingual’ Stamp Of Approval?

Illustration Credit: LA Johnson/NPR

South Korean and Japanese Students Talk About English-Language Education

On this side of the Pacific, we often hear about our friends and peers heading over to Asia to teach English. But we rarely hear from the student perspective.

South Korea and Japan spend billions of dollars each year on private tutors and academies in addition to what is taught in school curriculums just for that extra edge in English. However, according to the folks at YouTube channel Asian Boss, majority of South Korean and Japanese students have trouble communicating in English even at the most basic level. Asian Boss took to the streets of Sydney to ask a few young men and women, likely international students, about their own experiences—and struggles—learning and conversing in English.

All of the interviewees reveal that they began studying English at a young age—one commented that children begin to learn English as early as kindergarten in Korea. But for some, English isn’t just difficult. They loathe it.

“I just hate English,” one young male student commented. “Whenever I hear English or meet foreigners, I get dizzy and I start sweating. … That’s how bad it is.”

Most students expressed that learning English felt like picking up another subject, like math—an assessment tool to measure academic performance, as one student put it. Their experiences were limited to memorizing vocabulary terms and grammar rules without properly applying that they had learned. After their exams were done, they would forget everything.

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Learning more than one language isn’t just good for traveling — it may actually make you better at performing tasks that aren’t even related to linguistics. 

A recent study in Brain and Language by University of Washington researchers generated this somewhat surprising statistic: Bilingual people are about half a second faster at executing novel instructions, like “add 1 to x, divide y by 2, and sum the results” than their monolingual cousins.