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The Human Brain and Foreign Language

By Kent Converse

as parents we all have a vested interest in our children’s education. How they learn should be of special interest. Today, with modern instruments, we know a lot more about how the human brain works and develops.

This is a fascinating subject. In 2005 at our Rotary District Conference we had a speaker Dr. Rick Gaskill give a program on the human brain. It was the most popular program of the conference.Dr. Patricia Kuhl In this story, I will give you a web address of Dr. Patricia Kuhl of Washington University.

It is:

From this web address you can download one of her lectures that last about one hour. I can guarantee you will find her information fascinating. Especially those interested in how we learn languages. I have been interested in language learning from my contacts with Rotary Exchange Students. Many of these students are Europeans who have had several years of language training. Some are perfect, others, may be understood, but speak with an accent.

Our U.S. students have very little foreign language training and it usually doesn’t begin until high school. That would be an age range of 14 to 18. If you look at the chart on the ability to learn a foreign language you will see that you hit the bottom of the chart by age 18.

According to Dr. Kuhl, from 0 to six months all children are what she calls “citizens of the world.” In other words, take a baby at that age and place them anywhere in the world and they will develop the ability to speak any language like a native. After six months they start losing that ability.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t learn if you are off the chart. At 67, I went to Vietnam to learn Vietnamese. Vietnamese is one of the most difficult languages to learn. I was amazed how much I learned.

I had an excellent teacher. One of the things he told me that if a child is taught 50 words of any language by a native teacher, that child can later learn the language with no accent.

I was impressed with our Korean Exchange Student Eun-hey Lee who spoke fairly good English. She went to an excellent school in Korea. If that school wanted a teacher to teach Spanish, they hired a native speaker from Spain. Same with English, German etc.

That is a lot of effort by the school. If Dr. Kuhl is right, the exposure to a foreign language should be in nursery school.

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