Thursday, July 15, 2010

Benny's German adventure

"Benny the Irish polyglot" and his C2 exam results and analysis. In his own words:

"In a few short hours I’ll be flying into Berlin where I’ll be spending the next 3 months! The next mission is of course German. My mission will be to convince Germans that I’m a Berliner by the end of June, and to sit the Goethe-Zertifikat C2: Zentrale Oberstufenprüfung examination. The level required for this examination goes way beyond fluency; it is for Mastery of a language...

"The C2 level exam: "Think “very hard” & multiply that by a thousand".

More here

Benny's prior experience with German:

- "FIVE years of studies," "the familiar story of a wasted academic background"
- High school exit exam (which requires cramming)
- A two-month visit to Germany

Comment: High school German is around 500 hours of instruction and not "years of studies".


ORAL Result: 60/80 (75%: ‘good’ grade)
WRITTEN Result: 52/70 (74%: ‘good’ grade)
GRAMMAR Result: 43/70 (61%: ‘satisfactory’ grade)
READING Result: 25/50 (50%: would just be ‘pass’ grade due to ‘good’ in written)
LISTENING Result: 15/40 (37%: not a pass)"

"There were five different aspects to the exam. Based on four of these aspects I “passed” the exam and have a C2 level in German in these parts, doing better in certain sections than I originally thought I would! However, I did not pass one aspect: Listening comprehension. Because you must pass all of the five sections, the overall result is not a pass and I will not be awarded the C2 diploma."

Comment: What's "not a pass"? :) His conclusion is that he "almost passed", which I suppose is a good philosophy.

Writing: "This nice result was a bit of a surprise as writing is usually not something I focus much on... If you can speak confidently and correctly, then you simply transfer it to written format... The only difference is that I removed casual empty-softeners (like, you know, isn’t it?) and conversational connectors, which would make speech sound more natural, but not work in written form.

Comment: There is a big difference between speaking and writing but the two active skills certainly support each other.

Grammar: "I just barely got within the safe pass grade both in German and in Spanish. I still remember the Spanish result was precisely 80%. One tiny slip up and I would have failed the entire exam! I don’t like to focus so much on grammar and the rules of a language: speaking ‘perfectly’ is definitely way less important than speaking confidently. People who focus on this perfection will never actually reach it since they still aren’t confident enough to speak."

Comment: The grammar part does not test the terminology or explicit knowledge of grammar rules.

Result: 25/50 (50%: would just be ‘pass’ grade due to ‘good’ in written)

"This part was the only surprise for me, as I thought I had passed it safely, but I actually did quite poorly...

Despite the title, reading a lot does not necessarily help. I read enough for the purposes of this exam and I wouldn’t have increased my focus on reading if I were to resit it."


"I read enough for the purposes of this exam." "reading a lot does not necessarily help."

What does this mean? He spent three months in Germany running around like one of those duracell bunnies and according to his own log he began reading books (while studying) one month before the exam. His suggestion is that anyone trying to pass this part of the exam should not read but study vocabulary:

"What I would have done differently: more focus on vocabulary study, to be more precise. My answers were likely ‘correct’, but not good enough."

He was supposed to find synonyms for words taken from a particular context. Only some words can be matched in a given context. Reading is indispensable. And this piece of advice comes from "context is the KEY" guy.

Listening comprehension
Result: 15/40 (37%: not a pass)

"My biggest mistake here was (as mentioned above), presuming that to prepare for the listening exam, I simply had to listen to a lot of German. Ever since I arrived, I have had the radio on almost constantly, mostly on news and discussion stations. I somewhat paid attention and definitely got the general gist most of the time, and all of the time in the last month.

This did not actually help me for my listening exam....

Other learners swear by passive listening all day long as a means of learning a language. I was already sceptical about it, but now I’m convinced that it’s not a practical use of time (at least for me). If you like listening to the foreign language, then listen away, but don’t think that you are actually learning much. Listening while washing the dishes or driving a car will give you important exposure, and this is important to get a ‘feel’ for the language to make it sound less strange. But it is not necessarily improving your actual level of the language; definitely not your ability to produce, and not even so much for your ability to understand... Unless you are actively involved in the audio, you can only improve your level if you give it all of your attention, or if you have the ability to efficiently split your attention so that it is getting crucial focus...

What I would do differently if I were to sit this again: be 100% focused on listening when preparing (not doing anything else at the same time) and try my best to get as many details as possible out of the audio, rather than just feeling good about myself that I got the ‘gist’ of it."

Comment: blaring the radio for a couple of months while doing other things is not a good preparation for any exam. It's also a bad argument against passive listening or simply listening (and paying attention). Passive listening (with or without multitasking) requires time and is usually combined with other types of activities (especially when the learner is still struggling to understand the gist).

More on his C2 German exam here

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What Makes An Accent In A Foreign Language Lighter? More Empathy

What Makes An Accent In A Foreign Language Lighter? More Empathy And Political Identification With Native Speakers
ScienceDaily (Aug. 11, 2009) — The more empathy one has for another, the lighter the accent will be when speaking in a second language.

This is the conclusion of a new study carried out at the University of Haifa by Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim and Dr. Mark Leikin of the Department of Learning Disabilities and Prof. Zohar Eviatar of the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa. The study has been published in the International Journal of Bilingualism.

"In addition to personal-affective factors, it has been found that the 'language ego' is also influenced by the sociopolitical position of the speaker towards the majority group," the researchers stated.

We all know how to identify the average Hebrew speaker trying to speak English: the Israeli accent is an easy give-away. But why is there an accent and what are the factors that make one speaker have a heavier accent than another? One possibility is based on the cognitive discipline, which suggests that our language system limits the creation of language pronunciations in a non-native language. Another explanation is derived from the socio-lingual field, which claims that socio-affective elements have an effect on accent and that the second language constitutes an image label for the speaker in the presence of a majority group.

"Israel is a perfect lab location for testing the topic of second languages, because of the complex composition of its population. This population is made up of immigrants who learn Hebrew at an advanced age; an ethnic minority of Arabs, some of whom learn Hebrew from an early age, and others who learn the language as mature adults; and a majority group of native Hebrew speakers," the researchers explained.

The first stage of the study divided participants – students from the University of Haifa – into three groups: 20 native Hebrew speakers, 20 Arabic speakers who learned Hebrew at the age of 7-8, and 20 Russian immigrants who learned Hebrew after age 13. The participants' socioeconomic characteristics were identical. All were asked to read out a section from a report in Hebrew, and then to describe – in Hebrew - an image that was shown to them. The pieces were recorded and divided into two-minute sections. Additionally, the participants filled out a questionnaire that measures empathetic abilities in 29 statements.

The second stage of the study took 20 different native Hebrew speaking participants. They listened to the pieces that had been recorded in the first stage, and rated each piece according to accent "heaviness". Subsequently, each participant from the first stage was given a score on the weight of his or her accent and another score for level of empathy.

The study has shown that the accent level of Russian immigrants and of native Arabic speakers is similar. It also revealed that for the Russian immigrants, there is a direct link between the two measures: the higher the ability to exhibit empathy for the other, the weaker the accent. Amongst the Arabic speakers, however, no such link – either positive or negative – between level of empathy and heaviness of accent could be seen.

The researchers' hypothesis is that in the group of Arabic speakers, a new factor enters the 'language ego' equation: sociopolitical position. "We believe that the pattern among Arabic speakers demonstrates their sentiment toward the Hebrew-speaking majority group, and the former consider their accent as something that distinguishes them from the majority.

Our research shows that both personal and sociopolitical aspects have an influence on accent in speaking a second language, and teachers giving instruction in languages as second languages, especially among minority groups, must relate to the social and political connection when teaching," the researchers explain.

University of Haifa (2009, August 11). What Makes An Accent In A Foreign Language Lighter? More Empathy And Political Identification With Native Speakers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from­ /releases/2009/08/090810104931.htm

Exposure To Two Languages Carries Far-Reaching Benefits

Exposure To Two Languages Carries Far-Reaching Benefits
ScienceDaily (May 20, 2009) — People who can speak two languages are more adept at learning a new foreign language than their monolingual counterparts, according to research conducted at Northwestern University. And their bilingual advantage persists even when the new language they study is completely different from the languages they already know.

"It's often assumed that individuals who've learned multiple languages simply have a natural aptitude for learning languages," said Viorica Marian, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University. "While that is true in some cases, our research shows that the experience of becoming bilingual itself makes learning a new language easier."

In the first study to explore a possible advantage in bilinguals who learned a second language at a parent's knee, Northwestern researchers asked three groups of native English speakers -- English-Mandarin bilinguals, English-Spanish bilinguals and monolinguals -- to master words in an invented language that bore no relationship to English, Spanish or Mandarin.

They found that the bilingual participants -- whether English-Mandarin or English-Spanish speakers – mastered nearly twice the number of words as the monolinguals.

And they believe the bilingual advantage is likely to generalize beyond word learning to other kinds of language learning, including learning new words in one's own language and a very basic ability to maintain verbal information.

"After learning another language, individuals can transfer language learning strategies they've acquired to subsequent language learning and become better language learners in general," said Northwestern School of Communication's Marian.

Marian and Margarita Kaushanskaya, now assistant professor of communicative disorders at University of Wisconsin-Madison, are co-authors of "The Bilingual Advantage in Novel World Learning." Their study will be published in the August issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

The study has important implications for educators who are considering the appropriate age at which to introduce foreign language instruction as well as for parents who in increasing numbers have an option to enroll their children in dual language immersion programs.

"We're seeing that exposure to two languages early in life carries far-reaching benefits," said co-author Kaushanskaya. "Our research tells us that children who grow up with two languages wind up being better language learners later on."

Although there are more opportunities today for children to participate in dual language immersion programs than in the past, parents often avoid them for fear that dual language instruction may end up confusing or distracting their children and inhibit subject learning.

In research presented in the May issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, however, the two co-authors demonstrate that bilinguals actually are better able than monolinguals to inhibit irrelevant information while learning a new language. Repressing irrelevant information, after all, is something bilinguals do every time they speak.

What's more, the majority of the world's population outside the United States is bilingual or multilingual, Marian noted. In the U.S., approximately one out of five American households speaks a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census. And, with higher birth rates among Hispanics relative to the rest of the population, that proportion is rapidly growing.

Previous research already indicates that individuals who have formally studied two or more languages as adults more easily acquire a new language than monolinguals. New research even indicates that the onset of Alzheimer's disease in bilinguals is, on average, delayed by four years compared to monolinguals.

The Northwestern researchers chose to study bilinguals who learned a second language at an early age and in a non-classroom study to avoid suggestions that their subjects simply were exceptionally talented or motivated foreign language learners.

For their study in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, the researchers controlled for age, education, English language vocabulary size and, in the case of bilinguals, second language proficiency. Sixty Northwestern University students in their early twenties -- 20 monolinguals, 20 early English-Mandarin speakers and 20 early English-Spanish speakers – participated.

All participants were tested twice for word mastery in the invented language. The initial test took place immediately after they heard and repeated the invented language words. The second test occurred a week later.

Northwestern University (2009, May 20). Exposure To Two Languages Carries Far-reaching Benefits. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from­ /releases/2009/05/090519172157.htm

Bilingual Children More Likely To Stutter

Bilingual Children More Likely To Stutter
ScienceDaily (Sep. 10, 2008) — Children who are bilingual before the age of 5 are significantly more likely to stutter and to find it harder to lose their impediment, than children who speak only one language before this age, suggests new research.

The researchers base their findings on 317 children, who were referred for stutter when aged between 8 and 10.

All the children lived in Greater London, and all had started school in the UK at the age of 4 or 5.

The children's carers were asked if they spoke a language other than English exclusively or combined with English at home.

Just over one in five (69) of the children spoke English and a second language at home. Thirty eight had had to learn English as one or more family members did not speak English at home.

Fifteen of the 38 children spoke only one language (not English) before the age of 5, while 23 spoke their family's native language as well as English before this age.

Thirty one children stuttered in both languages.

Stuttering began at around the age of 4.5 years, and boys outnumbered girls by 4 to 1.

Comparison with a group of children who didn't stutter showed that three quarters of them were exclusive speakers of a language other than English at home; only a quarter spoke two languages.

The recovery rate was also higher among children who exclusively spoke one language other than English at home.

Over half of children who either spoke only their native language at home up to the age of 5, or who spoke only English (monolingual), had stopped stuttering by the age of 12, when they were reassessed.

This compares with only one in four of those children speaking two languages up to this age.

There was no difference in school performance between children who stuttered, but the authors suggest that children whose native language is not English may benefit from deferring the time when they learn it. "...this reduces the chance of starting to stutter and aids the chances of recovery later in childhood," they say.

This research was published ahead of print in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

BMJ-British Medical Journal (2008, September 10). Bilingual Children More Likely To Stutter. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from­ /releases/2008/09/080908215938.htm

Toddlers As Data Miners

New Thoughts On Language Acquisition: Toddlers As Data Miners
ScienceDaily (Feb. 4, 2008) — Indiana University researchers are studying a ground-breaking theory that young children are able to learn large groups of words rapidly by data-mining.

Their theory, which they have explored with 12- and 14-month-olds, takes a radically different approach to the accepted view that young children learn words one at a time -- something they do remarkably well by the age of 2 but not so well before that.

Data mining, usually computer-assisted, involves analyzing and sorting through massive amounts of raw data to find relationships, correlations and ultimately useful information. It often is used and thought of in a business context or used by financial analysts, and more recently, a wide range of research fields, such as biology and chemistry. IU cognitive science experts Linda Smith and Chen Yu are investigating whether the human brain accumulates large amounts of data minute by minute, day by day, and handles this data processing automatically. They are studying whether this phenomenon contributes to a "system" approach to language learning that helps explain the ease by which 2- and 3-year-olds can learn one word at a time.

"This new discovery changes completely how we understand children's word learning," Smith said. "It's very exciting."

Smith, chair of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at IU Bloomington, and Yu, assistant professor in the department, recently received a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund this research for five years. Here are some recent findings:

*In one of their studies, published in the journal Cognition, Yu and Smith attempted to teach 28 12- to 14-month-olds six words by showing them two objects at a time on a computer monitor while two pre-recorded words were read to them. No information was given regarding which word went with which image. After viewing various combinations of words and images, however, the children were surprisingly successful at figuring out which word went with which picture.

*In the adult version of the study, which used the same eye-tracking technology used in the Cognition study, adults were taught 18 words in just six minutes. Instead of viewing two images at a time, they simultaneously were shown anywhere from three to four, while hearing the same number of words. The adults, like the children, learned significantly more than would be expected by chance. Many of the adult subjects indicated they were certain they had learned nothing and were "amazed" by their success. Yu and Smith wrote in the journal Psychological Science, "This suggests that cross-situational learning may go forward non-strategically and automatically, steadily building a reliable lexicon."

Yu and Smith say it's possible that the more words tots hear, and the more information available for any individual word, the better their brains can begin simultaneously ruling out and putting together word-object pairings, thus learning what's what.

Yu, who has a doctorate in computer science and writes much of the software programming for their studies, said that if they can identify key factors involved in this form of learning and how it can be manipulated, they might be able to make learning languages easier, through training DVDs and other means, for children and adults. The learning mechanisms used by the children to learn words also could be used to further machine learning.

Indiana University (2008, February 4). New Thoughts On Language Acquisition: Toddlers As Data Miners. ScienceDaily Retrieved July 13, 2010, from­ /releases/2008/01/080129215316.htm

Children Under Three Can't Learn Action Words From TV

Children Under Three Can't Learn Action Words From TV -- Unless An Adult Helps
ScienceDaily (Sep. 21, 2009) — American infants and toddlers watch TV an average of two hours a day, and much of the programming is billed as educational. A new study finds that children under age 3 learn less from these videos that we might think—unless there's an adult present to interact with them and support their learning.

The study, by researchers at Temple University and the University of Delaware, can be found in the September/October 2009 issue of the journal Child Development.

The researchers studied children who ranged in age from 30 to 42 months to explore whether they could learn the names of actions (verbs) from videos. The names of verbs are generally harder for children to learn than names of objects. Yet verb learning is critical because verbs are the centerpiece of sentences, the glue that holds the words together. Using modified clips from the program Sesame Beginnings, the researchers showed children a video of characters performing unfamiliar actions that were labeled with new words (for example, "Look, she's daxing"). In some instances, the children watched without adult support, while in others, they watched with an adult who demonstrated the action that later appeared on the screen. The researchers then measured the children's ability to learn a new verb and apply that word to a new scene.

Without adult support, children under age 3 could not learn the words directly from the program, nor could they understand them when they appeared in a different context within the video. When they watched with an adult who reinforced what they were viewing, they could learn the words. In contrast, children over age 3 were able to learn the verbs from the video program and understand them later, even without an adult interacting with them.

"Learning verbs is difficult," suggests Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Lefkowitz Professor of Psychology at Temple University and one of the study's authors. "Young children need social support from adults to help them learn verbs from television. Watching on their own is not as 'educational' as watching with an engaged adult."

The study's take-home message, according to Hirsh-Pasek: "Amid the plethora of videos in the marketplace aimed at children under 3, our findings caution against using videos to teach language to very young children."

Research for this study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Science Foundation.

Society for Research in Child Development (2009, September 21). Children Under Three Can't Learn Action Words From TV -- Unless An Adult Helps. ScienceDaily.

Proficiency and age of acquisition of the second language

The bilingual brain. Proficiency and age of acquisition of the second language
D Perani, E Paulesu, NS Galles, E Dupoux, S Dehaene, V Bettinardi, SF Cappa, F Fazio and J Mehler
Istituto di Neuroscienze e Bioimmagini-CNR, Scientific Institute H. San Raffaele, University of Milan, Milano, Italy.

Functional imaging methods show differences in the pattern of cerebral activation associated with the subject's native language (L1) compared with a second language (L2). In a recent PET investigation on bilingualism we showed that auditory processing of stories in L1 (Italian) engages the temporal lobes and temporoparietal cortex more extensively than L2 (English). However, in that study the Italian subjects learned L2 late and attained a fair, but not an excellent command of this language (low proficiency, late acquisition bilinguals). Thus, the different patterns of activation could be ascribed either to age of acquisition or to proficiency level. In the current study we use a similar paradigm to evaluate the effect of early and late acquisition of L2 in highly proficient bilinguals. We studied a group of Italian-English bilinguals who acquired L2 after the age of 10 years (high proficiency, late acquisition bilinguals) and a group of Spanish-Catalan bilinguals who acquired L2 before the age of 4 years (high proficiency, early acquisition bilinguals). The differing cortical responses we had observed when low proficiency volunteers listened to stories in L1 and L2 were not found in either of the high proficiency groups in this study. Several brain areas, similar to those observed for L1 in low proficiency bilinguals, were activated by L2. These findings suggest that, at least for pairs of L1 and L2 languages that are fairly close, attained proficiency is more important than age of acquisition as a determinant of the cortical representation of L2.

Brain, Vol 121, Issue 10 1841-1852

Do Bilingual Persons Have Distinct Language Areas In The Brain?

Do Bilingual Persons Have Distinct Language Areas In The Brain?
ScienceDaily (July 9, 2009) — A new study carried out at the University of Haifa sheds light on how first and second languages are represented in the brain of a bilingual person. A unique single case study that was tested by Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim of the Department of Learning Disabilities and published in the Behavioral and Brain Functions journal, showed that first and second languages are represented in different places in the brain.

The question of how different languages are represented in the human brain is still unclear and, moreover, it is not certain how languages of different and similar linguistic structures are represented. Many studies have found evidence that all the languages that we acquire in the course of our life are represented in one area of the brain. However, other studies have found evidence that a second language is dissociated from the representation of a mother tongue.

According to Dr. Ibrahim, there are various ways of clarifying this question, but the best way to examine the brain's representation of two languages is by assessing the effects of brain damage on a mother tongue and on the second language of the bilingual individual. "The examination of such cases carries much significance, since it is rare that we can find people who fluently speak two languages and who have sustained brain damage that has selectively affected one of the languages. Moreover, most of the evidence in this field is derived from clinical observations of brain damage in English- and Indo-European-speaking patients, and few studies have been carried out on individuals who speak other languages, especially Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, until the present study," he added.

The present case examined a 41-year-old bilingual patient whose mother tongue is Arabic and who had fluent command of Hebrew as a second language, at a level close to that of his mother tongue. The individual is a university graduate who passed entrance exams in Hebrew and used the language frequently in his professional life. He suffered damage to the brain that was expressed in a language disorder (aphasia) that remained after completing a course of rehabilitation. During rehabilitation, a higher level of improvement in use of the Arabic language was recorded, and less for the use of Hebrew. After rehabilitation, the patient's language skills were put through various standardized tests that examined a range of levels language skills in the two languages, alongside other cognitive tests. Most of the tests revealed that damage to the patient's Hebrew skills were significantly more severe than the damage to his Arabic skills.

According to Dr. Ibrahim, even if this selective impairment of the patient's linguistic capabilities does not constitute sufficient evidence to develop a structural model to represent languages in the brain, this case does constitute an important step in this direction, particularly considering that it deals with unique languages that have not yet been studied and which are phonetically, morphologically and syntactically similar.

University of Haifa (2009, July 9). Do Bilingual Persons Have Distinct Language Areas In The Brain?. ScienceDaily.

Study Suggests The Brain Can Remember A 'Forgotten' Language

Use It Or Lose It? Study Suggests The Brain Can Remember A 'Forgotten' Language
ScienceDaily (Sep. 25, 2009) — Many of us learn a foreign language when we are young, but in some cases, exposure to that language is brief and we never get to hear or practice it subsequently. Our subjective impression is often that the neglected language completely fades away from our memory. But does “use it or lose it” apply to foreign languages? Although it may seem we have absolutely no memory of the neglected language, new research suggests this “forgotten” language may be more deeply engraved in our minds than we realize.

Psychologists Jeffrey Bowers, Sven L. Mattys, and Suzanne Gage from the University of Bristol recruited volunteers who were native English speakers but who had learned either Hindi or Zulu as children when living abroad. The researchers focused on Hindi and Zulu because these languages contain certain phonemes that are difficult for native English speakers to recognize. A phoneme is the smallest sound in a language—a group of phonemes forms a word.

The scientists asked the volunteers to complete a background vocabulary test to see if they remembered any words from the neglected language. They then trained the participants to distinguish between pairs of phonemes that started Hindi or Zulu words.

As it turned out, even though the volunteers showed no memory of the second language in the vocabulary test, they were able to quickly relearn and correctly identify phonemes that were spoken in the neglected language.

These findings, which appeared in a recent issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggest that exposing young children to foreign languages, even if they do not continue to speak them, can have a lasting impact on speech perception. The authors conclude, “Even if the language is forgotten (or feels this way) after many years of disuse, leftover traces of the early exposure can manifest themselves as an improved ability to relearn the language.”

Association for Psychological Science (2009, September 25). Use It Or Lose It? Study Suggests The Brain Can Remember A

Why Learning A New Language May Make You Forget Your Old One

A New Language Barrier: Why Learning A New Language May Make You Forget Your Old One
ScienceDaily (Jan. 18, 2007) — Traveling abroad presents an ideal opportunity to master a foreign language. While the immersion process facilitates communication in a diverse world, people are often surprised to find they have difficulty returning to their native language. This phenomenon is referred to as first-language attrition and has University of Oregon psychologist Benjamin Levy wondering how it is possible to forget, even momentarily, words used fluently throughout one's life.

In a study appearing in the January, 2007 issue of Psychological Science, Levy and his colleague Dr. Michael Anderson discovered that people do not forget their native language simply because of less use, but that such forgetfulness reflects active inhibition of native language words that distract us while we are speaking the new language. Therefore, this forgetfulness may actually be an adaptive strategy to better learn a second language.

In the study, native English speakers who had completed at least one year of college level Spanish were asked to repeatedly name objects in Spanish. The more the students were asked to repeat the Spanish words, the more difficulty they had generating the corresponding English labels for the objects. In other words, naming objects in another language inhibits the corresponding labels in the native language, making them more difficult to retrieve later.

Interestingly, the study also showed that the more fluent bilingual students were far less prone to experience these inhibitory effects. These findings suggest that native language inhibition plays a crucial role during the initial stages of second language learning. That is, when first learning a new language, we have to actively ignore our easily accessible native language words while struggling to express our thoughts in a novel tongue. As a speaker achieves bilingual fluency, native-language inhibition becomes less necessary, accounting for the better performances of fluent bilingual speakers in the study.

Although the value of suppressing previously learned knowledge to learn new concepts may appear counterintuitive, Levy explains that "first-language attrition provides a striking example of how it can be adaptive to (at least temporarily) forget things one has learned."

For more information on this subject and about the research please visit the University of Oregon Memory Lab website at

Association for Psychological Science (2007, January 18). A New Language Barrier: Why Learning A New Language May Make You

Bilinguals Are Unable To 'Turn Off' A Language Completely

Bilinguals Are Unable To 'Turn Off' A Language Completely, Study Shows
ScienceDaily (Aug. 19, 2009) — With a vast majority of the world speaking more than one language, it is no wonder that psychologists are interested in its effect on cognitive functioning. For instance, how does the human brain switch between languages? Are we able to seamlessly activate one language and disregard knowledge of other languages completely?

According to a recent study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, it appears humans are not actually capable of "turning off" another language entirely. Psychologists Eva Van Assche, Wouter Duyck, Robert Hartsuiker and Kevin Diependaele from Ghent University found that knowledge of a second language actually has a continuous impact on native-language reading.

The researchers selected 45 Ghent University students whose native-language was Dutch and secondary language was English. The psychologists asked the students to read several sentences containing control words - plain words in their native-language - and cognates. Cognates are words that have a similar meaning and form across languages, often descending from the same ancient language; for example, "cold" is a cognate of the German word "kalt" since they both descended from Middle English.

While the students read the sentences, their eye movements were recorded and their fixation locations were measured--that is, where in the sentence their eyes paused. The researchers found that the students looked a shorter period of time at the cognates than at the controls. So in the example sentence "Ben heeft een oude OVEN/LADE gevonden tussen de rommel op zolder" (Ben found an old OVEN/DRAWER among the rubbish in the attic), the bilingual students read over "oven" more quickly than "lade."

According to the psychologists, it is the overlap of the two languages that speeds up the brain's activation of cognates. So even though participants did not need to use their second language to read in their native-language, they still were unable to simply "turn it off." It appears, then, that not only is a second language always active, it has a direct impact on reading another language--even when the reader is more proficient in one language than another.

Association for Psychological Science (2009, August 19). Bilinguals Are Unable To 'Turn Off' A Language Completely, Study Shows.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

German comics and cartoons for adults

Unfortunately German comics and cartoons industry is dominated by foreign productions. Slim pickings here. Possible recommendations for adults:

Nick Knatterton comics (a bit dated)

Walter Moers:

Das kleine Arschloch (comic and Kleines Arschloch a 1997 animated feature film)
Der alte Sack
Adolf, die Nazisau

Brösel: Werner comics (and several cartoons)

Felidae (1994) a cartoon based on Akif Pirinçci's cult novel.

Monolingual dictionaries vs bilingual dictionaries

Some excerpts from "The Art and Science of Learning Languages" by Amorey Gethin (AG) and Erik V. Gunnemark (EVG). The book is worth checking out (available on Amazon). The excerpts were edited by the author Amorey Gethin. I suppose I'm doing this because his ideas reflect very much my own. One thing I find objectionable is the frequent use of "never".

"However; you should beware of monolingual dictionaries that claim to be the latest in scientific lexicography because they are based on a huge 'corpus' of millions of words scanned by computer. (A well-known example is the Cobuild English dictionary.) These computer collections are almost entirely of sentences and phrases found in written texts. The result is that not only are many of the examples quoted in the dictionary completely untypical of the real everyday use of the words, which is mainly found in speech; they have also been taken out of their broader context in newspaper articles, novels etc., which makes it even harder for the dictionary user to understand how the words are used.

Dictionaries - which way round?

When I first became interested in foreign languages I often heard people say that it is perfectly all right for English-speakers to use French-English dictionaries as much as they like, but that they should be very wary of using English-French dictionaries. In other words, it was all right to use dictionaries from the foreign language into one's own, but not dictionaries the other way round. I entirely accepted this principle. The grounds for it were that when one uses an 'own-to-foreign' dictionary, the chances are that one will not know how to use the foreign words one finds."

The only times I use a 'foreign-to-own' dictionary a lot are when I am doing translation work. I do not use the dictionary to find out what the foreign words mean. I do not consider people have any business to be translating if they have to use a dictionary more than very occasionally in order to understand. I use the dictionary to remind myself of the possible words in my own language. For a competent translator (into his own language) it is always and only his own language that presents the real problems. He understands the sense of the original perfectly - but how should he express it in the language he is translating into?

Monolingual or bilingual dictionaries?

It has been the orthodox view for a very long time now that more advanced students of foreign languages should only use monolingual dictionaries in the language concerned (i.e. if you study English you should use an English-English dictionary, if Russian, a Russian-Russian dictionary, and so on). Indeed, it is customary in language teaching circles to go even further and insist that one should begin to use monolingual dictionaries as soon as possible; from then on they are preferable to bilingual dictionaries. Thus, for example, according to this view, a dictionary which contains only French is better than a one- or two-volume dictionary with French-English and English-French.

It seems to be a principle that many, perhaps most, language teachers take for granted, something that is beyond question, so much so that there is virtually no debate on the issue. On the rare occasions when anybody bothers to explain why monolingual dictionaries are so superior; the argument seems to be that they make students think in the foreign language instead of immediately turning the foreign words into equivalents in their own language.

There are very few true synonyms

It has already been explained why it is a bad idea to think in terms of equivalents in your own language. But what is an even worse idea is to translate a word into another word in the same language. The whole 'point' of a word is that it does not mean anything but itself. Practically every word is unique.

So never try to find out how words are the same. Find out how they are different! Never try to learn alternative words. For example, if we imagine you are learning English, do not think about what the words face, confront and oppose might have in common, never attempt to connect them to each other in your mind. Connect each one, instead, to the ideas to which it naturally belongs; one builds up understanding of how words are used from being alert to the contexts they fit into.

He must face-his-problems-alone.

Simply confront-the-boss-with-the-evidence.

She will oppose-the-motion.

Then, when you feel you really need an alternative, you will be able to judge which word is the right one from your knowledge of how the words are truly used, and where they fit naturally. If you learn like that, you are unlikely to think of replacing the three words above with each other.

How monolingual dictionaries mislead

Monolingual dictionaries give the impression that the opposite of all this is true. They give definitions (see below, Section 59), and describe words in terms of each other; tell us that this word means the same as that word. Over the years I has noted down examples of mistakes and misunderstandings that have resulted from using one of the most well-known monolingual English dictionaries produced for foreign students. Here are just a few of them. The words in brackets are what the writers really meant. I was able to establish exactly what was happening because in each case the writers were reporting on something they had read in English.

She died after a long disease (illness).

If people criticize our handling of our children, we bubble over (seethe).

My wife said nothing, in spite of my incompetence, until lastly (finally) I dropped the spare wheel on her foot.

They considered (thought of) a genuinely British solution to the problem.

18th century furniture is rather breakable (fragile).

Luckily things could be worse. The monolingual dictionary often turned up in rows on the desks in front of a new group of my students, but I noticed, even if I hadn't had the heart to tell them they had wasted their money, that at the end of the term most of these thick tomes still had their pristine, unfingered shine.

The temptation to resist new words

Unfortunately, though, it is what one might call the 'monolingual' philosophy that does so much harm, even when monolingual dictionaries are not actually used. It not only encourages a completely false idea of the nature of language, and misleads students about the meaning of thousands of words; it also encourages the great reluctance of so many students to adopt new words.

Naturally if one accuses them of such an attitude, most will deny it. Of course they want to learn new words, they assure us with complete sincerity. But their actions belie their protestations. Led to believe - and only too willing to believe - that the new word means the same as a good old safe familiar word, students will stick to the familiar one, and won't bother with the new one. It will often be as if they had never read or heard it, and they will persevere with the old one in all sorts of contexts where it won't do at all.

The trap of thesauruses

The only thing worse than a monolingual dictionary is a thesaurus. The native speaker sifts the 'synonyms' she finds in a thesaurus, and discards most - or even all - of them. She is able to do this precisely because she already knows exactly what they mean and can accept or reject accordingly. If she is not sure of the meaning and use of a word, she does not dream of using it. A foreign student cannot possibly discriminate in this way.

To try to learn foreign words by learning definitions (in the foreign language) is as big a mistake as to try to learn them by learning 'synonyms'. We do not in effect learn the words of our own or any other language through explanations and definitions. We understand a word and master its use when we can make a direct association with the 'reality' it refers to, whether that reality is a thing or action or quality or an abstract idea or anything else. In a sense the word is the association; there is no interpreting link between the word and what it means.

When we hear a word in our own language we do not stop and ask ourselves what the definition of that word is, in order to understand it. Nor; when we want to use a word, do we find the right one by deciding on a definition and then remembering the word attached to that definition.

It is worth considering here that when we judge that a definition of a word, in a dictionary or elsewhere, is a good one, we can only do so because we already know the meaning in a quite different, precise way that has nothing to do with definition. We do not tell ourselves that a definition is a good one because it is similar to a definition we have heard before. Equally, one can only produce one's own definition of a word if one first knows it in some other way.

But a foreign student cannot possibly be led by a definition to a proper apprehension of a word she does not know. A definition, far from being a quick path to mastery of a word, is a barrier between the word and the reality it belongs to. It is an extra and misleading burden on the memory, and goes right against the psychology of the way we experience words in practice. Mastery of a word is a matter of apprehending it - directly, in a flash.

The false logic of monolingual dictionaries

What exactly is this 'thinking' we are supposed to do in the foreign language when we use a monolingual dictionary? It is very unclear. At best it can only be thinking about the words of the definition, which is not what we need to be thinking about at all. The definition is in a foreign language, too, which can only increase the student's confusion, conscious or unconscious. Nor is there anything to stop an English-speaker, say, 'thinking in English' about a French definition in a French monolingual dictionary.

Whatever the thinking is, it is certainly not the sole kind of 'thinking in the foreign language' that is either possible or relevant: that linking of a word directly to a reality. And what sort of definitions are we talking about? Here are three examples taken from the same dictionary that I mentioned above that bring out the failure of the monolingual approach particularly clearly:

blast - strong, sudden rush of wind

gust - sudden, violent rush of wind

dangle - hang or swing loosely

floppy - hanging down loosely

sarcasm - bitter remarks intended to wound the feelings

taunt - remark intended to hurt sb's feelings

Let us also look at a monolingual dictionary compiled in accordance with the recommendations on vocabulary of the Council of Europe, namely the New basic dictionary, published by Macmillan-Lensing. There we find among other definitions:

packet = a small container [a bottle?]

language = a way in which we communicate [a telephone conversation perhaps?]

tax = money paid to the government [what for?]

In an English-French dictionary, on the other hand, we get a direct and far more exact answer:

packet paquet

language langage

tax impot

How to use bilingual dictionaries

If you are studying a foreign language, you need a way of arriving in your mind at the reality the foreign words refer to as directly, quickly and accurately as possible. If you have to use a dictionary, you should always therefore use a bilingual dictionary. The word in your own language will immediately summon up the idea of a particular reality; there will be no barriers in the way.

But there are two things you must always do, two fundamental principles for using a bilingual dictionary. (Let us assume you are reading, not listening, although the principles remain the same.)

In the dictionary you will nearly always find several meanings in your own language for the one word you are looking up. You should go straight back to the foreign text and first see which meaning fits into the reality the text describes. Note 6

Then you should forget the word in your own language. Instead you should concentrate solely on the context of the foreign language. You have now discovered the reality which that language is talking about; observe - consciously or unconsciously - how it expresses it. In this way you will learn the exact meaning of the foreign words, just as the native speakers have done.

Perhaps to understand the principle better, imagine you come to a little river, a stream. The bank you are standing on is a sentence in the foreign language. You want to cross to the opposite bank, which is the meaning of the sentence. The stream is too wide to step across - an unknown word. But in the middle of the stream there is a stepping stone, the dictionary translation of the troublesome word. With the help of the stepping stone you step over to the other side. Now you are where you wanted to be - you understand the whole sentence, including the use of the new word. That is all you need. At this point you do not lean back to pick the stepping stone out of the stream and carry its weight around with you for the rest of your life. It has served its purpose and you can ignore it.

You should never forget that basic truth, that languages are not translations of each other. This means quite often that although the dictionary suggests many words in your own language as an equivalent of the foreign word you have looked up, none of them would be suitable as a translation for the context you have before you. But unless you are making a formal translation for someone, that does not matter at all. What is important is that you should understand the reality which the foreign language is referring to. The dictionary will usually give enough indications for you to be able to do that.

But finally, never forget that the dictionary should always be a last resort. Don't let it dominate you and steal from you the precious time you should be spending with the language itself.

Final advice

Summing up

(a) Never spend money and time listening to teachers talking about words. Instead, spend that time reading and listening and finding out directly what words mean and how they are used.

(b) Never waste money on books about vocabulary. Instead, again, read and listen and find out directly what words mean and how they are used.

(c) Never make lists of one-word equivalents. (If you need such a list for the most basic words, try to find one that has been made by a linguist who has studied the problem carefully.)

(d) Never translate into your own language "to be sure you really understand". If you don't already understand you cannot translate.

(e)Never think that a word means the same as another word.

(f)Never believe that a definition tells you what a word really means.

(g)Never use a dictionary more than you absolutely have to – and "absolutely having to" is much less often than you think."