Creating bilingual minds | Naja Ferjan Ramirez | TEDxLjubljana

Translator: Tiki Li
Reviewer: Queenie Lee How many of you can speak two languages? Most of you can.
We are in Europe after all. Now, let me ask you this: How many of you would say that you
are completely fluent in two languages so that you could take a job or dream
in either one of them? Not as many. Why is that? I think we can all agree that being fluent
in two languages is a good thing. It creates additional job prospects.
It allows us to talk to more people. It also has been linked to several
cognitive and social advantages, and it delays the onset
of Alzheimer’s disease. So, why are we not all fluent bilinguals? Those of us who studied
foreign languages in school probably remember how hard it was
and how much we struggled. I’m certainly speaking
from experience here. I started learning English
when I was about ten years old, in school, right here in Ljubljana. And about nine years later,
when I went to study in the United States, I thought my English was pretty good,
I was able to do my homework just fine, but I also remember eating dinner
with my college friends and not being able
to follow their conversations, or going on my first date in America and only understanding
about half of what the guy was telling me. Now, I’m sure many of you have your own
stories about foreign language learning, but there’s one thing that most
of these stories have in common: foreign language learning is hard. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and it seems that no matter
how hard we try, we rarely achieve native-like fluency – even in those cases when we have been using
our foreign language for years, we still maintain that foreign accent. Does it have to be this hard? I don’t think it does. What I’ll tell you today
is that the human brain is fully capable of achieving native fluency
in two languages at the same time, and that we don’t necessarily
have to struggle to get there. So what is it that we have to do
to create bilingual minds? I think a very promising start
is to study the brains of those who are really really good
at language learning. Babies. Babies are linguistic geniuses, and all over the world, babies learn their native languages
naturally and spontaneously without anybody actually
teaching them how to do this, but this gets even better. Those babies who have a chance to listen to
and interact in two languages learn both, and they can become
native speakers of both. You and I can’t do that, and computers can’t do that either. So, why and how are babies
so good at language learning? I’m a researcher at the University of Washington’s
Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences – I-LABS for short. And I study the brain
processing of language in babies between zero
and three years of age. I focus specifically on those babies who are learning two languages
at the same time, bilingual babies. The approach that we take
to study the baby brain is called Magnetoencephalography, MEG for short. We call it the hair dryer from Mars. But it’s important to understand
this machine is actually completely safe, non-invasive, and completely silent,
so pretty baby friendly. We use Magnetoencephalography
to study the baby brains, and the MEG machine
that we have at our institute is actually one of the few in the world
that’s configured specifically for babies. We also have a team
of trained research assistants whose job is to keep the babies
happy and entertained when we study their brains. One question that we recently
studied with MEG was: What goes on in the brains of those babies
who grow up in households where two languages are spoken
at the same time, by native speakers? If we look at these babies brains
before the baby’s even begin to talk, are they different from those of babies
who listen to a single language? Here’s how we tested these questions. We brought the babies into the lab. Half of them were from bilingual families where one parent
was a native speaker of Spanish and the other one
was a native speaker of English. The other half of the babies
were from families where both parents
were native English speakers, so English was the only language
spoken in the household. Then to prepare the babies for MEG, we use those special
digitizing pen and a hat. And what this procedure allows us to do
is to track the shape of the baby’s head so that we can then continuously
monitor the babies’ motions when the head is in the MEG helmet. We then brought the babies
into the MEG room, where they sat on a special highchair, the head goes right into the MEG helmet,
and the parents sit right next to them when we look at their brains. During the MEG studies, the babies typically listen
to the sounds of language – in this case, the sounds
came from Spanish and English – so let’s take a listen
to see what that sounded like. (Video starts) (Video ends) Some of these sounds are specific
to English, some are specific to Spanish, and some are common to both languages. All babies in these studies
were exactly 11 months old. This is typically right around the time when babies begin
to produce their first words, but they’re not really speaking yet. So, what did we find? What we found was that the brains
of monolingual babies were specialized to process the sounds
of English, their native language, and were not specialized to process
the sounds of Spanish, the language to which
these babies were not exposed. What about the brains of bilingual babies? Well, as it turns out,
the brains of bilingual babies were specialized to process the sounds
of both languages – Spanish and English. So what does this mean,
and why am I so excited about this? What this means is
that the baby brain specializes to process whatever language or languages
are present in the environment. The brains of those babies
who listen to one language specialize to process one language, but the brains of those babies
who listen to two languages specialize to process two. There’s one more finding in this study
that I’d like to tell you about. There’s a part of the brain
called the prefrontal cortex – it’s highlighted in green
in this schematic that you can see. But it’s right here,
in the very front of your brain. And we use this part of the brain
to direct our attention, to switch back and forth between doing
different tasks and to think flexibly. I think we can all agree that these
are extremely important tasks to do in the 21st century. We were curious to see
how the two groups of babies compared in terms of their brain activity
in these prefrontal areas. Interestingly, what we found was that the bilingual babies
had stronger brain activity, stronger brain responses
to language sounds, specifically in these prefrontal regions. Now, why would that be? One explanation is
that the constant switching back and forth between
two different languages provides exercise for the brain, that it strengthens these brain networks
that participate in attention switching, and that this provides
a cognitive boost to the bilinguals. Many other studies have actually shown that bilingual children,
but also bilingual adults, have advantages when it comes to tasks
that require cognitive flexibility, but what’s particularly intriguing here is that we see brain differences
specifically in these areas that are related to flexible thinking
at 11 months of age before these babies are even speaking. So our studies have shown that the baby brain is fully capable
of specializing in two languages at the same time, and that there are possibly
some additional advantages that come along with this for free. So, given these findings
you may be wondering: Why are we not raising
all babies to be bilingual? There has to be a disadvantage here
that I’m not telling you about. Some people think so. One common concern is that bilingualism
slows language-learning down. That it makes it slower. Research doesn’t actually support this. Instead, what studies have shown is that if we consider the patterns
in bilingual learning, they’re actually very very similar
to what we see in monolingual learning. For example, bilingual babies start
producing their first sounds as well as as their first words
at the same age as monolingual babies. We also know that if we give
bilingual children credit for each word that they know
across their two languages, their vocabularies are
of the same size if not bigger than those of monolingual babies. Another common concern
is that bilingualism causes confusion. This concern arises from the fact that bilinguals sometimes
combine their two languages in the same sentence
or in the same situation. This is called code-switching
or code-mixing. So does code-switching
or code-mixing indicate confusion? Science suggests that it does not. Most bilinguals code-switch,
and my family is not an exception. In my family, we actually
speak three languages, and sometimes we hear
sentences from our children that combine all three:
Slovene, Spanish and English. Does this mean
that our children are confused? I don’t think it does. So let me give you an example
to demonstrate why this is the case. My four-year-old will
sometimes say sentences like “Mom, is daddy pod tušem?” This means: mom, is daddy in the shower? Now, why does he say sentences like this? There are a few reasons. The first one is that he can. Bilinguals, unlike monolinguals, have another language
from which they can easily borrow words, and they sometimes do this because they know words
from one language sometimes better than they do in the other. So for example, my son probably knows the word “shower”
better in Slovene than he does in English, so he uses it because it’s easier. The second reason
he uses sentences like this is that he knows I will understand him. He rarely use Slovene words
in his preschool because he knows
that his teachers and his friends will have no idea what he’s talking about. Bilingual children typically
know very very well when they can and can’t
mix their languages. And studies have shown
that even two-year-olds will adapt their language to match
that of their conversational partner. There’s one final point
about code-mixing that I’d like to make. Even though it’s called mixing, it’s not just randomly mixing together
words from different languages. It follows grammatical rules. I rarely hear sentences such as:
“Mom, is daddy pod tuš?” Now, those of us who are fluent
speakers of Slovene and English will know that I can
say “Daddy goes pod tuš,” but “Daddy is pod tuš” doesn’t work;
it has to be “pod tušem.” This is because the verb “be”
indicates a state, and in Slovene, it requires
a different case than the verb “go,” wich indicates motion. This is complicated, right? The point is this:
Code-mixing is not easy. It requires a lot of linguistic
knowledge in both languages as well as then being able to figure out
how to combine this knowledge in a meaningful way. So, rather than indicating confusion, code-mixing is actually a sign
of linguistic sophistication. It’s also a perfectly normal,
and expected behavior that we see in bilingual children, but also in bilingual adults
who are fully fluent in both languages. So bilingualism does not
cause confusion, it also does not slow
language-learning down. In fact, science suggests
that there are many advantages, and the demand on bilingual education is actually increasing in the US
as well as worldwide. People are also beginning to realize that starting from an early age
may be the best solution because we know that at birth, the human brain is just as capable
of learning two languages as it is to learn one. So what should we do? How can we provide all babies
with an opportunity to learn two languages
from a very young age. In families like mine,
the answer is straightforward because parents are
native speakers of languages that are different from what the child
hears outside of the home. But what about everybody else? As a child language
development specialist, I often hear from parents
who are eager to provide their baby with an opportunity
to learn another language, but they’re not native speakers
of that language, and they can’t afford to hire a nanny
who’s a native speaker of that language. Some parents think that their baby
may be able to learn a foreign language by watching television. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Older children may be able
to learn some foreign language words from electronic media, but babies learn languages through play, through frequent social interactions
with live human beings who are fully competent and comfortable
users of that target language. So really, the question
comes down to this: Can we create environments,
within public education, through which all babies will be able
to learn foreign languages from a very early age? If we start very very early, how much and what kind
of language exposure is needed to create
a truly bilingual mind? From research, we know that babies can learn
foreign languages surprisingly quickly, but at the same time, we also know that the type
of language they hear is critical in determining
how much they will learn and how quickly they will learn. So can we make this work? We think that we can. From research, we know that there are six principles,
six ingredients, if you will, that grow children’s language. We think that if we take
the right science-based approach that combines these six ingredients, we can create educational programs through which all babies will be able
to learn foreign languages through play, in the context of public
early education centers. We recently started to test this idea
in one of the European capitals where the government is very excited
to promote foreign language learning for all babies from birth. The results of these studies are extremely
exciting and extremely promising. So stay tuned. We think that this approach
has the potential to change the game
for bilingual education. We’re hoping to scale it up so that it will one day allow all babies
to reach their full potential and to start learning two languages
from a very young age. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Creating bilingual minds | Naja Ferjan Ramirez | TEDxLjubljana

  1. they thought for everything to make that fancy device from mars but not the mouth noises that were too invasive to the babies' brains*.

  2. I love the topic and am deeply interested in it but she CANNOT BE MORE BORING and THE NOISES, GOD, drink some water for goodness' sake!

  3. Muy buenas. Es una charla interesante. Entiendo que la ciencia quiere llegar más lejos. Esto está bien siempre cuando se le da utilidad a los resultados. Los resultados a los cuales han llegado no se pueden llevar a la escuela pública. Es una pérdida de medios y tiempo. No entiendo esta carrera hacia el bilingüismo. cada etapa tiene su tiempo. Soy profesor de español y se que cada alumno es un mundo. No es tan fácil como aparece. No hay que obsesionarse por el aprendizaje de las idiomas. Es mi consejo.

  4. My native laguage is spanish. When I moved to Miami I was able to get by speaking a broken english until I started taking laguage lessons, then I got a job which required english and spanish. Fourteen years went by and after dating in english, hanging out with native english speaker gave me a sense for the english language and now I am able to feel in english to the point I sometime I forget the correct words in spanish. I married a Czech who's fluent in English because he lived in the U.S, moved to czech Republic and I struggle to make friends because their english is basic for comunicating, and good enough to work in eglish. But they don't have a sense for the laguage, so they don't get the jokes and some things related to the Americn Culture… In fact I never felt more American as I do since I live in Europe. I think south American have more in common with northern American than with europeans…My daughter is 3 years old and speaks Czech from my husband, spanish because of me, and english is the common laguage between my husband and I… I'm glad she's got the opportunity from birth.

  5. She didn't said anything wrong what she said is true.
    However many persons have learned differently from persons or media or even just reading.

  6. I love the work and research. But if I may I don't believe in one part that the babies learn separate languages. It's actually learned as just one language at first and then they learn to separate the languages as they get older.

  7. En tu estudio, has percibido si el aprendizaje de más de una lengua para niños antes de los 4 años puede traer cualquier problema en su desarrollo motor más específico o retardarlo de alguna manera?

  8. I was raised listening to 3 languages: Spanish, Portuguese and English, and all of them sound very familiar to me. I haven't had any problem in being trilingual.

  9. I am Turkish and learned English and I can speak a little German, this summer i moved to Finland and started learning the Finnish. My husband is a Russian and he can speak English, Finnish, Spanish and a little German. Sometimes, when we speak to each other in English, I am using Finnish words. I searched this situation and I realized that I was using different languages' words in the same sentences because my brain was choosing the first remembered word instead of my speaking word.

  10. thank God I have a British fiance huh. Can't wait to teach two languages to the little ones some time in the future. 🙂 Some of the things she said was interesting but it was overall boring since she made her point in the first few minutes and just kept repeating herself from then on.. I found myself rather focusing on her accent (which was pretty obvious as she got tired/more nervous) than what she had to say.. (._. ) I personally feel like I didn't get an actual answer as to how this was supposed to help adults with learning new languages …or it was just me hoping this video would help with that as well.. 😀

  11. I disagree.I and my cousin both learned English and German just by watching cartoons.Neither of my parents are bilingual.

  12. that's very bueno but you actually puedes learn different languages through visual and audio media porque I speak english without being forced to listen to a native speaker in person, just through youtube o bueno eso creo yo ¿sabes?

  13. By far the worst talk ever. Her study is too limited to proof anything and she didn't come up with any interesting result. Waste of time.

  14. Thanks for this video! I've found it very useful and enjoyable! I have always been interested about bilingualism and how it works in the brain.

  15. so what you're saying is, in order to be completely fluent in another language, i need to go back in time and re-learn a new language as a baby.

  16. So every indonesian is already billingual and sometime does mixing-codes that is very sophisticated, mixing our national languange with our native language

  17. I hate the ASMR that’s going on here 🙉🙉🙉🙉🙉😭😭😭😭😭😩😫😖😣😣 please make it stop!!!!!

  18. Pretty lady, but the speech was just way too subjective and shallow, nothing new, and for her study, there was no result even mentioned

  19. Ok, but… what are these 6 principles/ ingredients for developing language in children? She just mentioned there are such principles but didn't tell us what they are… 😶😒😔😔😔 Does anybody here have a link to another video of hers where this idea is better explained?

  20. Children who attend a school in with the curriculum is taught in a different language from the one they hear at home, mix words, because it is easier for them. My son would say to me "no encuentro el PE kit" because his sports class is called PE and that is the way they call the clothes they use, he will say Break instead of "recreo" o maths instead of matemáticas. Sometimes they make direct translations such as "He cogido un A" instead of "He sacado una A", because in Spanish "sacas notas" while in English you get a certain mark.

    The school makes them use more English tan Spanish despite his parents are both Spanish, an for example, when he looks up a certain French word in the dictionary, for his French class, he looks it up from French to English, not to Spanish, he makes his mental maths calculations in English, he looks up in the internet in English if he wants to get something and he know a higher number of refined or cultures or technological word in English, therefore sometimes he asks "How do you say "stamen and pistil" in Spanish? He also prefers reading in English.

    The language in which you study is the language in which you develop a higher number of vocabulary, while you will use slang in the language in which you were brought up, because obvioulsy your teacgers will not use slang or rude words.

  21. During our listening time can we use with subtitles?
    What is the better way?
    With subtitles or without subtitles?

  22. There is one problem of teaching a baby a second language. Once he learned it, he has to not forget it. If he doesn't use it, he will just forget it, slowly but surely. I speak 3 languages, italian, lithuanian and english. My native language is italian, I learned it as a first language and knew no other language until 3 years of age. Then my parents divorced and I ended up in lithuania and I learned lithuanian (my dad said I spoke fluent lithuanian after 2 months). But I started to forget italian, it was hard to keep it in my mind since I saw my italian father for just one time a year and phone calls then were very expensive. Now I live in Italy and my italian is perfect but I started to lose lithuanian. I speak to my mom once a week (in lithuanian of course), I read news in lithuanian, I understand it but I feel that I'm losing it. That is the same for everyone, if you don't use one language often, you'll lose it. I keep english by watching videos and reading books, italian just flows naturally since I speak it everyday. Sooner or later I feel that I'll have to let go of lithuanian, I can't keep 3 languages on, it's just too difficult.

  23. some ppl are afraid of the AI and I was always afraid of babies and their mental capacity :O can we make em teach us? 😉

  24. Have you ever thought of a language which is completely foreign for everybody and, in the same time, so private, so internal ?
    It's the inconscious language.
    It is more difficult to speak than any outside foreign language…but, when we succeed, the "brain", as you said, becomes smarter about life.
    No need all those complicated and simplistic experiments, the science is elsewhere.

  25. I am sorry to say this. She sounded nervous and a little shaking. It was uncomfortable to listen to her. What she was saying was great though.

  26. I know a girl with a Portuguese father and a Thai mother. At age 4 she could speak Portuguese, Thai and English (the language her parents speak to each other). She not only knew those languages — she knew at that early age that her father didn't understand Thai and her mother didn't understand Portuguese. So she would speak Portuguese or English to her father, Thai or English to her mother, and English only when she spoke to both at the same time and wanted both to understand. But when she was going on a tantrum with (say) her father, she would only speak Thai, and the reverse with her mother, speaking only Portuguese. All that at the age of 4.

  27. This is so amazing! We grow up in Paraguay speaking Spanish and an indigenous language, this local language is no academic, the press is not written in it, the school teaches it in a very basic way and the people associate it with poverty, lack of development and slow-learning making. Switching languages is the most fluent thing you can do with languages.

  28. The mouth noises are called "kucha kucha" (くちゃくちゃ) in Japanese.
    Making the sounds is so rude in Japan

    They are unpleasant for us.

  29. Don't wish you had learned the second language as a baby. Don't regret something that wasn't in your power. We as adults have some great privileges when it comes to learning. We already know how to learn. We just have to understand how to do it the right way and it's not a scary thing. There are thousands of great teachers who guide you. No money? No time? Ok. No need

  30. I had a brain storm!! What if we let all of them in , and then take our military in where the people are fleeing from . And fight back for the people that are running for they're lifes !!! Take the Cartel on with our military !!????

  31. I couldn't tell. My country speaks 2 languages. English and our native language. Yet, I am not really that fluent in speaking in English not until high school even though I am exposed to the language since I was born. Still, eversince I learned speaking, I do code-mixing up until today. Does it have something to do with the people around me doing code-mixing? This actually makes me not fluent in both languages since I don't know some of the words in our native language, same with the English language but I can clearly explain myself when I use both in one sentence.

  32. There's a TED talk that dispels the myth that babies are linguistic geniuses. Adults actually have much better capability of learning a language over the same time period and get better results.

  33. As a teacher I have found that bilingual children rarely master an impressive command of either language – for example excellence in poetry and literature. They're most often mediocre at both home languages.

  34. I think that it's impossible being totally fluent in any language. I don't even know all the words in Portuguese, sometimes I struggle to say something in my own language, imagine being total fluent in English. Forever I'll be learning English and Portuguese.

  35. Learning another language is not so difficult, but speaking the target language will be the hardest thing you will do your life.

  36. My 1.5 year old has taught himself colours shapes alphabet and numbers all from baby tv so i disagree. I also show him Spanish German and Russian language on TV hes doing alright id say

  37. i think it is great thing and gift any parents can give to their children .nowadays as arabic socity we suffer from and lost lots of great opportunites because we are not fluent in english but we will

  38. yes in Philippines we have over 100 languages, and English is usually our third or fourth language, code mixing is really common and we are able to relay our message more clearly than in just one language. So to all na naninuod sa TEDTalk na ito, maligaya kayo and hopefully marami kayong natutunan na substantial! <3

  39. From my own experience, i live in Indonesia where is non of the poeple use English, and i learn English since elementary school but still can't speak English when i start my university, but i start learning English from movies, song, and just go to the bar meet the foreigner just to practice, after 3 years, i meet some of my friend from the US she totally shock that i speak like a native speaker.

  40. I'm Brazilian and my husband is English and we live in the UK. I really want my child to be fluent in Portuguese.

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