Sunday, June 3, 2012

Bilingual Children: Patricia Kuhl, Early Language & Brain Development Expert

They're the brainy bunch

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People raising children in Hong Kong recognise the importance of bilingualism. Local parents hope for their children to speak English fluently, and expatriate parents appreciate opportunities for their children to learn Chinese. We want our children to be bilingual so that they can understand another culture, communicate with a wider group of people and improve career prospects when they enter the workforce.

What if I told you that bilingual kids have better brains? This is the finding of cutting-edge research by Professor Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington who was in Hong Kong last month to talk about how early exposure to language alters the brain. Kuhl is internationally recognised for her research on early language and brain development and on studies that show the unique way young children learn.

I found it very reassuring to see scientific evidence back up our general sense in Hong Kong that we should expose our children to different languages.

Most of us are aware (perhaps from the painful experience of trying to learn a new language in adulthood) that the ability to learn a new language decreases with age. But what I didn't know until Kuhl's talk is that babies learn a language more easily and more organically than the rest of us because their brains are implicitly and automatically taking statistics of which neural connections to strengthen and which to "prune".

Of particular interest is Kuhl's finding that children who are bilingual have greater mental flexibility than those who are monolingual. This translates to the ability to adapt to new situations quickly, to switch from following one set of rules to a new set of rules - even beyond childhood.

That said, the big surprise of the evening, which drew gasps from the audience, was Kuhl's finding on the effect of watching television on babies' brains. Using a multimillion-dollar machine that maps out brain activity, she found that watching a television show in a foreign language had absolutely no effect on babies. In short, your baby may be staring at the screen as if they are absorbing every detail from that DVD which promises to make your baby a genius, but there isn't much brain activity happening.

Kuhl's recommendations: teach in a social context (children learn from people, not machines); promote mental flexibility through bilingual education; and read to children every day.

Many English-language children's books come in bilingual editions. Felicia Hoshino's Sora and the Cloud, in English and Japanese, specifically introduces children to common Japanese expressions. Mantra Lingua, a British publisher, has a number of bilingual children's books in English and every language under the sun.

For parents who want to introduce Putonghua stories to their children but are themselves are non-speakers, I recommend the picture books of Lai Ma. Not only do his books come with English translations as well as a CD of readings in English and Putonghua, but he is also my favourite writer and illustrator of children's books in Chinese. Now Do You Know Who I Am?is a story in which 33 animals get ready for day-long outing. Each two-page spread shows all 33 animals in their shared activities, with so much for the reader to explore, from learning to count to finding specific animals. It's a zany and high-octane picture book that my elder daughter asks for again and again.

You're welcome to contact me for additional Chinese picture books that comwith English translation as well as a CD of readings in English and Putonghua.

Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy

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