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Culture could help bind languages for bilingual children

by Lindsay Jolivet Apr 4 / 14

The elements of culture, from music to the smell of certain spices at dinnertime, could help bilingual children secure and separate two languages in their brains, according to a new research paper.

An illustration of the mechanisms by which cultural elements such as clothing, music, food, dance and faces could serve as a binder for bilingual acquisition.
Photo courtesy of Janet Werker

CIFAR Senior Fellow Janet Werker (University of British Columbia) in the Child & Brain Development program co-authored a paper outlining the evidence for how culture binds language, which is in press at the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education.

“Acquiring a language isn’t just about acquiring a formal rule system, it’s about becoming a member of a culture,” Werker says.

A child who grows up in a household with two cultures might eat Indian food for dinner some evenings and French Canadian food others, listen to music from two cultures and regularly see the faces of family members from each culture, matching each of these cues to the corresponding language.

“They attend to these cues. They’re very interested in who is a member of my culture, who isn’t,” says Werker. The researchers propose that this attentiveness to cultural differences helps children’s minds solidify the differences between each of their languages, like a filing system in their brains that connects the smell of curry to Hindi or the tune of Frère Jacques to French.

For example, a recent study of bilingual Chinese-American adults found they had greater difficulty retrieving English words when looking at the face of a Chinese person, suggesting the visual cue made it harder for them to suppress their Chinese language. Furthermore, 11-month-old babies make connections between the ethnicity of faces and the languages they expect them to speak.

“We don’t know if this is just a learned association or if it’s some kind of built-in expectation that language and some attributes of culture, like race, might go together,” Werker says.

The researchers write that exposure to two cultures isn’t essential, as many bilingual children come from families with only one, but it could be a powerful aid as kids grasp and hold onto both languages at once. This has implications for education, suggesting that visuals, sound and cultural experiences might help children learn a second language.

Werker says her interest in this subject emerged in part because parents in the multicultural Vancouver area were worried that teaching their children two languages could confuse them, or cause them to struggle in school. The evidence in this area so far suggests that isn’t the case.

“Children are not particularly delayed in acquisition when they grow up with more than one language; they don’t get confused,” Werker says.

There are sometimes small complications; for example, their vocabulary is split between two languages, so they may not initially know as many words in each one. However, empirical studies have shown that bilingual children may have better problem solving skills, attention span and executive function than monolingual children. Werker’s ongoing work on this relatively new concept could help explain how kids manage to learn and separate multiple languages so well.