Entries in Language (9)


Study: Bilinguals Have Faster, More Adaptive Brains When They Get Older

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Speaking two languages can actually help offset some effects of aging on the brain, a new study has found.

Researchers tested how long it took participants to switch from one cognitive task to another, something that’s known to take longer for older adults, said lead researcher Brian Gold, a neuroscientist at the University of Kentucky.

“It has big implications these days because our population is aging more and more,” Gold said.  “Seniors are living longer, and that’s a good thing, but it’s only a good thing to the extent that their brains are healthy.”

Gold’s team compared task-switching speeds for younger and older adults, knowing they would find slower speeds in the older population because of previous studies.  However, they found that older adults who spoke two languages were able to switch mental gears faster than those who didn’t.

But don’t go out and buy Rosetta Stone just yet.  The study only looked at life-long bilinguals, defined in the study as people who had spoken a second language daily since they were at least 10 years old.

First, Gold and his team asked 30 people, who were either bilingual or monolingual, to look at a series of colored shapes and respond with the name of each shape by pushing a button.  Then, they presented the participants with a similar series of colored shapes and asked them to respond with what colors the shapes were by pushing a button.  Finally, researchers presented participants with a series of colored shapes, but they mixed prompts for either a shape or a color to test participants’ task-switching times.

The bilingual people were able to respond faster to the shifting prompts.

Researchers then gathered 80 more people for a second experiment: 20 young bilinguals, 20 young monolinguals, 20 old bilinguals, and 20 old monolinguals.  This time, researchers used fMRI scans to monitor brain activity during the same shape- and color-identifying tasks.  Gold and his team found that bilingual people were not only able to switch tasks faster -- they had different brain activity than their monolingual peers.

“It allows a sort of window into how the brains of people who have different cognitive processing abilities and are processing the same stimuli in different ways,” said Kristina Visscher, a neurobologist at the University of Alabama School of Medicine who did not work on the study.

Visscher called bilingualism a “beautiful natural experiment,” because people grow up speaking two languages, and studies have shown that they reap certain cognitive benefits from switching between languages and determining which to respond with based on what’s going on around them.  The University of Kentucky researchers took it a step further by using brain imaging, which she said was “exciting.”

Gold said he grew up in Montreal, where he spoke French at school and English at home, prompting relatives to question whether his French language immersion would somehow hinder his ability to learn English.

“Until very recently, learning a second language in childhood was thought of as dangerous,” he said.  “Actually, it’s beneficial.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


How Teens Talk May Determine If They Want to Go to College

Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- If you want to know whether your teenage girl wants to go to college, listen carefully to how she talks.

A new study from Michigan State University found that girls who were looking to further their education started changing the way they spoke in the hopes of fitting into a larger arena.  The girls spoke more carefully than casually and no longer shortened words like 'running' to the slang term 'runnin''.

Researchers concluded that girls with lower social and educational aspirations felt no pressure to change and no incentive to stop sounding local.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Reduce Dumb Decisions by Thinking in a Foreign Language

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(CHICAGO) -- People who think problems through in a foreign language -- and it doesn’t matter which one -- make more rational decisions and are more apt to take smart risks, especially in the financial realm, according to a recent study in the journal Psychological Science.

Left to follow their gut instincts, people are naturally loss-averse, sometimes myopically so, and often pass up favorable opportunities as a result, says Boaz Keysar, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study.

“Imagine I offer you $100, or we flip a coin and if it’s heads, you get $200, and if it’s tails, you get nothing,” Keysar says.  “Most people would say, ‘I’ll take the $100 and not risk getting nothing.  Ninety-nine percent of people would do that, even if I offer $2,200 or nothing.  We have an emotional reaction to a definite, immediate gain.”

But consider the proposal in Korean, French, Spanish, Japanese -- any non-native tongue -- and the aversion to losses diminishes, and our willingness to take risks changes, Keysar and his research team found.

“A foreign language is less emotionally connected than our native tongue, and distances you,” says Keysar, who, even after 25 years in the United States, says he still “operates differently” in English than in his native Hebrew.

“A non-native language takes you away cognitively and slows you down, especially if you’re not that skilled in it,” he says.

As counterintuitive as that seems, it’s a nice boost for the language slackers.

“The less proficient you are in a second language, the more you’ll deliberate over decisions,” Keysar says, “and your choices benefit from such deliberation.  It’s like you become somewhat of a different person.”

In one of six experiments to gauge just how different, Keysar and colleagues enlisted 54 University of Chicago students who were native English speakers but had been studying Spanish.  They gave each student $15 in $1 bills to make 15 separate bets in a coin toss.  In each toss, they could either pass up the bet and keep the dollar, or risk losing it for the possibility of getting an extra $1.50 if they won the toss, or nothing if they lost. 

These were advantageous bets, Keysar explains, as statistically, the students stood to come out ahead if they took all 15 bets.

While the students who considered the wager in Spanish took the bet 71 percent of the time, those who thought it through in English were willing to wager only 54 percent of the time.

“Bear in mind that we gave them the $15.  It’s not as if it was even their own money,” Keysar says.  “But in the foreign language, they were not as motivated by fear.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Toddlers Hear Their Own Words Differently, Says Study

Hemera/Thinkstock(COPENHAGEN, Denmark) -- Ever wonder why toddlers just can’t seem to get the pronunciation of some words just right?  Science may now have an answer.

People subconsciously monitor their voices to ensure the sound they are producing is the one that is intended.  If it is different, we are able to change that tone, but new research found that toddlers do not monitor their voices in the same way.

“Surprisingly, 2-year-olds do not monitor their auditory feedback like adults do, suggesting they are using a different strategy to control speech production,” lead author Ewen MacDonald of the Technical University of Denmark told ABC News.

MacDonald said monitoring one’s voice is similar to musicians playing music.  For example, violinists adjust their fingers to bring a note that is out of tune, in tune.

In the study, published in the journal Cell Biology, a group of adults, 4-year-olds, and 2-year-olds said the word “bed” repeatedly while simultaneously hearing the word “bad” through a set of headphones.  Everyone was able to adjust their speech to continue to say the word “bed,” except for the youngest age group.

The findings are surprising because infants can detect small changes in the pronunciation of familiar words in their native language, MacDonald said.  By the time American children reach age 2, they have an average of 300 words in their vocabulary.

One reason for the findings may be due to the way children communicate with their caregivers, researchers noted.

“One possibility is that the 2-year-olds may rely on the person they are talking to instead of monitoring their own voice,” said MacDonald.  “If you look at interactions between young toddlers learning to speak and their caregivers, you will often hear the caregiver repeating or reflecting back what the child has just said. It may be this interaction that is helping children judge their accuracy in producing speech.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Can Listening to Hip-Hop Music Help You Learn a New Language?

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(ALBERTA, Canada) -- Paula Chesley, a visiting professor at the University of Alberta, is no rapper.  But in a study released Wednesday, she found that hip-hop music could actually help children and young adults learn new language.

Some rap lyrics are notoriously difficult to understand, but the correlative study published in PLoS ONE found that the number of hip-hop artists that a person listened to could predict knowledge of non-mainstream words and phrases used in hip-hop songs.

“Hip-hop is highly prominent in mainstream culture nowadays, and thanks to technologies like iPods, smartphones [and] YouTube, adolescents and young adults are able to listen to more music than ever before,” said Chesley.  “This means they get the benefit from repeated exposure, enabling them to better process contextual details that allow for learning these words.”

Researchers gave 168 undergraduate students a set of rap-specific vocabulary words and then told the participants to define them. Students were likely to understand the meaning of the specific vocabulary words tested if they also indicated hip-hop was their preferred music, had social ties to African-Americans and knowledge of pop culture in general.

“Associating language with a melody is generally beneficial to memory,” said Chesley. “In addition, literary tropes such as rhyme, which is omnipresent in hip-hop, are also beneficial.”

While hip-hop tends to interest younger generations, the music genre may still serve as language therapy for older adults as well.

“Insofar as motivation and the desire to be cool seems to be a key element in the learning process, older people currently might not derive any benefit,” said Chesley. “That might change though as people who have grown up with hip-hop get older.”

But Susan Bookheimer, a professor of cognitive neurosciences at UCLA Medical Center, said, “There is no reason older people wouldn’t benefit, provided they actually attend to the lyrics,” and said the research could contribute to novel approaches to language therapy.

“The study is correlational only, that is, they did not introduce new words intentionally in hip-hop songs or use control conditions, so it is difficult to know how useful that would be,” said Bookheimer.  “However, I find it a very exciting finding with clear implications for enhancing knowledge in school-aged kids, particularly among those who struggle with traditional memorization approaches or who are generally disengaged in schoolwork.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Folic Acid in Pregnancy Cuts Risk of Language Delay

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(OSLO, Norway) -- Taking extra folic acid in the weeks leading up to and just following getting pregnant could reduce the risk of the child having severe language delay, according to new research from Norway.

The study tracked the use of folic acid supplements and other supplements in nearly 40,000 expectant women and their children and found that those women who took folic acid in the four weeks prior to and eight weeks after conception had children who were about half as likely to experience severe language delay at age 3.  Toddlers who could only speak in one word or unintelligible utterance were rated as having severe language delay.

Folic acid, also known as folate, is a type of vitamin B found in green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, dried beans, and liver.  Folic acid is an essential vitamin the body needs for proper functioning, particularly during the first few weeks of life.

Folic acid is known to be an important prenatal nutrient and has been tied to reduced birth defects and a lowered risk of premature birth when taken by expectant mother.  This study is the first to suggest that this nutrient is specifically related to severe language delay.

“If in future research this relationship were shown to be causal, it would have important implications for understanding the biological processes underlying disrupted neurodevelopment, for the prevention of neurodevelopmental disorders, and for policies of folic acid supplementation for women of reproductive age,” study author Christine Roth of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, writes.

The study was published Tuesday in the October issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Oregon Woman Wakes from Surgery with Accent

KATU-TV/ABC News(PORTLAND, Ore.) -- Karen Butler is from Oregon, not England.  Yet, if you heard her speak, you'd think otherwise.

When asked where she got her accent, she says from her dental surgeon.

In 2009 Butler, a 56-year-old tax consultant in Toledo, Oregon, awoke from denture implant surgery with an accent that's a bit British with a Transylvanian twang, and it just sort of stuck.

"I had just had surgery, so at first we assumed it was because of all of the swelling," said Butler.  "But within a week the swelling went down and the accent stayed."

Butler has foreign accent syndrome -- a condition so rare that only about 60 cases have been documented worldwide.  Often preceded by a small stroke, the new drawl is thought to stem from a minor injury to a tiny area of the brain responsible for language pattern and tone.

"This is a very small part of the brain that controls the articulation and the intonation of speech that's affected, and that's why it's so rare," said Dr. Ted Lowenkopf, a neurologist and medical director of Providence Stroke Center in Portland, Oregon, in an interview with ABC News affiliate KATU-TV in Portland.  "The chances to hit such a small area are more than a million to one in a stroke."

Because certain blood vessels in the brain are more prone to blockages, a stroke often damages parts of the brain responsible for language production and comprehension.

"Stroke happens in very predictable ways," said Dr. Julius Fridriksson, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of South Carolina, who has seen many stroke patients but only a couple with foreign accent syndrome.  "This type of damage is out of the ordinary."

Butler said she was never tested for a stroke because she felt fine.

"I appear to be completely normal otherwise," Butler said, adding that she never felt any pain or had neurological symptoms other than the change in her speech.  "And I'm quite OK with [the accent]."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


'Ums' and 'Ahs' Help Toddlers Learn Language

Creatas/Thinkstock(ROCHESTER, N.Y.) --  "Look at the, uh, zebras, honey," a mom might say to her two-year-old during a visit to the zoo. While the stumble or hesitation may seem like the most unimportant part of the conversation, it can play a major role in the toddler's language development.

So says a new study from the University of Rochester published in the journal Developmental Science. Researchers found that young children used those "ums" and "uhs," technically known as speech disfluencies, to acquire new words.

"Around the age of two, kids start being able to use speech disfluencies to anticipate what the speaker is likely to talk about," said Celeste Kidd, the lead author of the study.

Kidd, a fourth-year doctoral candidate specializing in language development and attention in infants and children, said people mostly use such sentence fillers when the word being sought is not used often or has not yet come up in the conversation.

"Perhaps the most important aspect is that the study shows it's not just the words toddlers are attending to, but it's these nonlinguistic cues as sources of information," said Kidd.

The study included 16 children between 18 and 30 months old. As the researchers did their work, the children sat on their parents' laps in front of a screen with an eye-tracking machine. On the screen, two images appeared: One was a picture of a familiar item, such as a car or book, and the other was a made-up image with a made-up name, like "biffle" or "spad."

A voice recording then talked about the objects in simple sentences. When the voice stumbled and said, "Look at the, uh ..." the children turned their eyes to the made-up image 70 percent of the time.

Significant differences were found only in children two years old or older.

"The most important finding [here] is that children at about age 2 are highly sensitive to features in the environment that help them learn language," said Dr. Heidi Feldman, a professor of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Between the ages of 2 and 3, children can usually put together basic sentences of two to four words. Infants learn to recognize the language of their environment depending on how often sounds occur together, Feldman said. And toddlers learn words and concepts according to the number of words they hear, learning grammar from the kinds of requests their parents make.

"Word learning is typically thought of as a map, where there is an object in the world and that gives a map to some spoken set of sounds," said Kidd. But the study, she said, suggests that very young children seem to understand words in a broader, more general way too.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Viral YouTube Video: Baby Babble or Secret Language?

Comstock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- A viral video of two diaper-clad babies babbling in the kitchen has people wondering what the tots are talking about.

Eighteen-month-old fraternal twin boys Sam and Ren appear to be having a grown-up conversation complete with questions, answers, facial expressions and gestures -- even the odd laugh. But they aren't speaking English.

"These kids are right on the cusp of language," said Stephen Camarata, professor of hearing and speech Sciences at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Nashville.

Instead of producing words, the boys are making different sounds in the tone and rhythm of speech.

"They're using the intonation patterns of sentences -- imitating sentences in a crude way," Camarata said. "It's one way that children learn how to talk."

"Even before they have words, they know how conversation works," said Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, education professor and director of the infant language project at the University of Delaware in Newark.

"They're producing syllables emphatically and using them for communication purposes," she said. "They're having a ball."

Eventually, Sam and Ren will start replacing bits of babble with English. But for now, the boys are content with their improvised idioms.

"They're laughing and grinning and imitating," Camarata said. "With twins you've got two kids at exactly the same developmental level going back and forth and having a blast."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio