ON LANGUAGE LEARNING
Russian Readers Learn To Read More Accurately and Faster
News release issued by University of Haifa
May 14, 2007
Science Daily – Children whose mother tongue is Russian and who acquired literacy in their home language before entering first grade received higher grades on reading skills tests than their peers who speak only Hebrew or those who speak Russian but have not learned how to read it. This was revealed in a study recently completed at the University of Haifa. The researcher, Dr. Mila Schwartz, pointed out that because of the linguistic complexity of the Russian language, it can be deduced that knowing how to read and write Russian will give children an advantage when learning to read other languages.
The research, which was conducted under the direction of Dr. Mark Leikin and Prof. David Share, evaluated 129 first graders that were divided into three groups: bilingual Hebrew and Russian speakers who had acquired literacy skills in Russian before being exposed to Hebrew reading skills; bilingual children who spoke but had not learned how to read Russian; and monolingual Hebrew speakers. The research involved administering tests which evaluated the children’s language skills at the beginning of first grade and tests that evaluated their reading and writing skills at the end of first grade.
The results revealed that children who acquired Russian reading skills before learning to read Hebrew showed a distinct advantage over the other groups in their ability to distinguish between sounds and greater fluency and accuracy in reading. The research did not find any differences in the reading skills of monolingual Hebrew speakers and bilingual Hebrew and Russian speakers who did not read Russian. According to Dr. Schwartz, this result supports the existing theories that bilingualism alone does not enhance development of reading skills but that reading skill acquisition is easier when a child already knows how to read another language.
In addition, the research evaluated 107 fifth grade children, who were divided into the same three groups. In this part of the research the acquisition of English reading skills was evaluated. As in the first part of the study, a distinct advantage was recorded in reading acquisition among the group of children who had learned to read Russian first.
According to Dr. Schwartz, even those who learned how to read Russian but rarely use it showed increased abilities in reading acquisition. She also added that most of the research done in this field has evaluated knowing how to read English as being helpful in acquiring reading skills. However, as English is considered an “irregular language” in terms of the connection between letters and sounds, it was difficult to draw conclusions about knowing how to read English as being an aid when acquiring reading skills. Russian, on the other hand, is considered a unique language in terms of its linguistic structure and connection between letters and sounds and was therefore found to be helpful in later acquiring reading skills in other languages.
A New Language Barrier: Why Learning a New Language May Make You Forget Your Old One
Science Daily – Travelling 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 about the research please visit the University of Oregon Memory Lab website at: http://memorycontrol.uoregon.edu.
Compiled by Erin Bouma