Learning a new language can strengthen the brain (while having fun) !

13 December 2013
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13 December 2013, Comments: 0

Research shows that when kids learn a second language they build stronger, more agile brains. And, when they engage multiple senses they strengthen their memories while having fun too!

baby diplomaLearning multiple languages early in life gives the brain the right exercise at the right time to build a strong foundation for a lifetime of learning. In the early years, our brains are busy, busy, busy! The growth happens at unimaginable rates -- just feel a baby’s head -- there’s a reason it’s so hot -- infants have twice as many neurons and synapses as an adult brain! The benefits of being multilingual go beyond increased test scores, problem solving and executive function (the ability to organize complex thoughts). Think social and emotional health, cultural openness, better job prospects and delayed Alzheimer’s (on average 5 years!) That’s what a little brain exercise at the right time can do for your child. So before you grab those bilingual books and language tapes read on to learn the optimum way to learn a new language (spoiler alert: it actually involves playing and having fun!)

When to start
So, when is the right time to start learning a second language? The answer: while it’s never too late, it’s best to start young.

Babies are Good Listeners
Babies have a unique gift that short cuts the hard work of learning language later in life (read: save your kid the awkwardness of middle school Spanish). It’s actually before we begin speaking that our brains begin learning language. Turns out, hearing is a big part of learning, and babies are already doing that by the 7th month in utero! Newborn brains recognize around 200 sounds present in all spoken languages. This amazing skill is short lived. It’s what makes it so difficult for most adults to learn a new language without a foreign accent. Babies are ready to hear and discern the subtle differences in sounds. Adults have outgrown it. But babies begin to lose this incredible ability by 11 months. Babies who hear only one language tend only to recognize their own language’s sounds if they haven’t been exposed to others early in infancy.

Baby brains are preparing for a lifetime of learning
Early exposure to more than one language has shown to enhance executive function (i.e. our ability to organize thoughts and regulate behavior) in the brains of preverbal children. Scientists suggest preschool is an ideal time for children to learn a second language – at an age when they are especially receptive.

How to Learn
So, what is the best way to teach a child a second language? Here are 3 methods to combine, and why they rock!

1. Involve the whole brain and body.
Engage all 6 (!) senses while learning. Surprise! A 6th “sense” has been added by researchers. Studies show that there are 6 (not just 5) main pathways to the brain. You already know about sight, sound, taste, touch and smell...but did you know about doing? SAL_ILLO_Linda_edited-1Movement is an indispensable part of learning and thinking -- the body plays an important role. When we move our bodies while we learn, it engages several of our senses at once. Our brain associates the movement with the meaning and remembers it better. That learning gets stored in our long-term memory. Writing and talking stimulate muscle movement but more physical exercise invigorates existing brain cells and may even stimulate the development of new ones. Researchers observed a group of 3 year old European children who could speak 3 languages acquired them through sensory stimulation and play. Here’s a simple way to understand how our brains receive information: When we receive stimulation through multiple pathways, the brain tucks away bits of information in different brain areas -- like drawers in a bureau. Some goes to the “drawer” for sight input, other to the “drawer” for sound input, etc.). And when we recall the information, it activates the brain to fetch it from all those storage drawers -- and this act is the difference between merely memorizing and actually learning something new. More “drawers”, the better. We also have an emotional connection to the learning when it is made fun through playful movement and joyful music. Young children love to move and dance. Fun stirs up emotions in the (mammalian) brain which is responsible for memory storage. More movement and activity, the better.

2. Involve Music!
SAL girlsMusic engages our brains, and prompts us to move -- all of us -- from tiny kicking infants to grandma! Even in utero, many babies react with movement to the sounds of music. Scientifically speaking, music activates many regions of the brain and triggers the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter Dopamine (same response you would have to winning the lottery!). And because language is rhythmic (think poetry, songs, and syllables), music’s rhythmic quality can help accentuate key language learning. Understanding that words break into syllables makes learning to read easier. Well-crafted songs help point out syllable breaks. Songs are also wonderful memory-aids. Try this: Think of a song you heard repeatedly in your youth -- pick one you haven’t heard in a while. Try to write out the lyrics from memory. Now play the recording, listen and sing along to the song. What happens to your ability to recall? It probably is greatly improved by hearing the song, and actively singing along. Those old dusty “drawers” are packed with information. Music opens them up.

3. Get involved!
Kids learn language from humans, not from media like CDs and DVDs. Research shows that learning occurs during engagement with loving caregivers. Of course, it’s great to use songs and videos to help reinforce and introduce language, but nothing beats the influence of a caring adult. When children see us get involved they see us model how to learn, they see that the learning is important, and when the activity is joyful, they are invited to fully engage and participate. Plus, only good can come from increased face-to-face engagement -- especially important when so much of our time might be spent looking at a hand held gadget.

Tricycle Learning Method™
At SingALingo we integrate, what we call, the Tricycle Learning Method into all of our products. It’s a way to playfully activate all that we know about getting kids involved in healthy brain exercise; riding on “3-wheels” -- Music, Movement & Language Learning.tol2 This method engages different “drawers” in the brain and result in whole body, higher-order learning versus just rote memorization. Not only will they learn better, remember longer, and create more neural connections using our methods, but they will be drawn to do it again and again. Because it’s fun. Together, you and your children will sing, move and giggle your way to learning a new language -- and begin building strong brain foundations for a lifetime of problem solving, creative thinking and agile brains. We invite you to experience this for yourself and hope you have the same success that we, our friends and communities have enjoyed.

Please share a story below on how have you helped young kids to learn...
 
References
References

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Ludke KM et al. (2013) Music can facilitate foreign language learning. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23860945

Salimpoor, V.N. et al. (2011) Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music, Nature Neuroscience Volume:14, Pages: 257–262

Schlaug, G. et al. 1995. Increased corpus callosum size in musicians. Neuropsychologia 33

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Willis, J. (2008) Brain-based teaching strategies for improving students' memory, learning, and test-taking success. Review of Research. Childhood Education, 83(5), 31-316  

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