Shedding light on how bilingual children learn – The University of Texas at Austin | Directory Mayhem

There is a cute little cherub with a curly head in a yellow dress and she is the star of the show. She’s sitting on her mother’s lap and her mother is talking to her in that soft mother’s voice that, despite appearances, is saying this is normal, you’re safe and there’ll probably be a nice present for you if you participate. A scientist and her research assistant, whom the child has never met before, hover around them in a small room with a desk, some electronics, and a flat-screen TV.

A child wears a cap with instruments that map brain activity and performs various cognitive tasks related to learning. Credit: PBS/Otherwords/Spotzen.

Two-year-old Lena has already twice refused to wear the odd stretchy hat with chin strap and bundle of cables tied to a computer. A round of “Baby Shark” – and a snack from Mom – helped calm her down a bit. But she’s still fidgety. The assistant tries a distraction: she waves a plastic stick with a ball on the end that flashes different colors. Maria Arredondo sneaks up and puts on her cap. Now they have to work fast.

“During my postdoc studies, I tested 300 babies,” says Arredondo. “And as you’ve seen, the samples for this paper are quite small, less than a hundred, because it’s not just about brain activity, it’s also about the baby’s compliance.”

Arredondo, an assistant professor of human development and family studies who directs the Child Learning and Development Studies Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, is trying to understand how growing up in a bilingual environment affects a child’s learning. The focus of her research grew out of a very personal curiosity. She first learned English when she moved to the United States from Argentina at the age of 12.

“I found it very interesting how my parents and older sister struggled to learn a new language,” she says. “But my younger brother was having a really easy time. And so I asked myself: Why do some people have problems and some people seem to find it very easy?”

She is interested in how children learn multiple languages, but also how the underlying skills needed to learn those languages ​​translate into other types of learning. There is a hotly debated hypothesis in this field that bilingual children perform better in higher cognitive functions critical to learning—such as memory, inhibitory control, and attention—compared to monolingual children. If that’s true, maybe bilingual kids are better at learning all sorts of things. Experiments designed to test this idea have had mixed results.

Arredondo has planned three short assignments for Lena today, designed to test some of the basic skills related to studying.

Maria Arredondo tries to understand how growing up in a bilingual environment affects a child’s learning.

What’s on your mind?

Lena lives in a household in which only one language, namely English, is spoken. The cap on her head uses infrared light to safely map real-time brain activity. It’s part of a technique called fNIRS, functional near-infrared spectroscopy, which measures oxygen levels in different areas of the brain. Areas of the brain that are busy hearing speech, for example, use more oxygen.

After several years of training and hundreds of infants and children participating in her studies, Arredondo has learned how to calm children.

“Children get scared easily,” says Arredondo. “We try to create an environment where they can move freely and feel comfortable and they can understand that this is a safe environment. This is a place where they can play and be themselves.”

In the first task, research assistant Lena shows a soft yellow duck puppet with a black hat. She performs a series of actions including removing and replacing the hat and taking a pair of mittens from a pocket, shaking them and putting them back. The assistant puts the duck away and brings out a white lamb doll and the same accessories, then tries Lena on. Can she repeat the different actions the wizard did with the first doll? The goal is to see which parts of her brain are active when she recalls what she has previously learned.

Combining brain activity patterns from monolingual learners like Lena and bilingual learners can help pinpoint differences in the way they perform higher cognitive functions like this memory task.

Another key skill needed to learn new things, including languages, is the ability to turn off distractions and block automatic but incorrect reactions, also known as inhibitory control.

For the second task, Lena is shown a screen with two squares – one black and one with a smiley face. The smiley face is always on the same side of the screen each time it appears. She learns that if she presses the smiley face she will get a bonus – an apple will appear and a fun piece of music will play. Then the researchers switch which side the smiley is on. And first, she continues to touch the same side of the screen, but no longer gets the additional bonus. Eventually she switches to the other side.

“We’re looking at inhibitory control, whether they can inhibit this original response and switch to the new location,” says Arredondo.

In the third task, the assistant points to a picture of a ball. “Look at the ball!” Then she repeats this with another familiar object, a car. Next, she presents Lena with an object she’s never seen before – a made-up toy that looks like a gummy mass of colorful, teardrop-shaped blobs. “Look at the Dax!”

In order to learn this new word, she must draw on other skills such as memory and attention. The researchers are interested in patterns of brain activity that accompany learning of the new object’s name and how these differ between bilinguals and monolinguals.

“For bilinguals, we conduct the experiment in English and Spanish,” says Arredondo. “So we’re interested in seeing if the amount of exposure they get in each of these languages ​​affects whether they map that word better in one language than the other.”

An example of a stimulus type used in Arredondo’s tasks. In this case, children learn a new word for an invented toy (left). Photo credit: Maria Arredondo.

Do bilinguals learn better?

Bilingualism is pretty impressive when you think about it. Bilingual learners spend less time listening to and speaking each of their languages, and to be successful in both languages, they need to learn twice as many words as a monolingual child.

There is at least some support for the idea that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in the higher cognitive abilities underlying learning. For example, other researchers have found that bilingual learners do better at some tasks that require attention, such as B. changing from a duck to a rabbit in an ambiguous image. Maybe that’s because they grow up in a bilingual household and need to switch their attention between two languages ​​quickly.

During her postdoctoral studies at the University of British Columbia, Arredondo used fNIRS to study 6- and 10-month-old infants from bilingual and monolingual households performing a task called orienting attention, the ability to engage with and between Switching between them tested sensory impressions such as noise or visual stimuli. In this case, a familiar object (e.g. a beach ball) appeared in different places on a computer screen, and the researchers recorded where the children were looking and how long it took them to switch attention from one place to another.

Arredondo found that babies from bilingual households had more brain activity in the left frontal region, which is associated with language processing and language production, than babies from monolingual households during the task. Interestingly, the bilingual babies who showed the greatest increases in brain activity in this region were the ones who were subjected to higher levels of “code switching” – switching between multiple languages ​​- at home, and were also more likely to perform the task correctly. And the bilinguals showed greater improvement from 6 months to 10 months of age than monolinguals.

Overall, Arredondo’s findings suggest that code-switching between languages ​​at home could sharpen bilinguals’ attention and encourage learning.

“These studies show that bilinguals’ brains and attention span adapt to their environment and improve over time,” says Arredondo. “It’s possible that this code-switching environment makes them better at learning, but we don’t know that fully from these data.” It’s all correlated.”

After about 15 minutes, Lena has had enough of the hat and pulls on it. It wasn’t an endurance test, but if it were, she would have passed with flying colors. She played along with the researchers and sat in the hat during all three experiments.

“She was one of the best participants,” says Arredondo. “Although she took her time to warm up, she did it amazingly.”

A child wears a cap with instruments that map brain activity and performs various cognitive tasks related to learning. Credit: PBS/Otherwords/Spotzen.

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