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Knowledge of foreign languages lasts a lifetime, new research shows

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Think you’ve lost your French? Mais NON! People tested on foreign languages 50 YEARS after they last sat an exam perform at the same level as recent students, study finds

  • Scientists tested people who’d taken French GCSE or A-level from 1970-2020
  • They found that there was no change in language proficiency over time 
  • People from 1970 were as proficient as those who’d taken it in 2020

While French is one of the most popular GCSEs in the UK, many Brits are nervous when it comes to using their language skills later in life.

But a new suggests there’s nothing to fear – even if it has been decades since you last studied a foreign language.

Researchers from the University of York have shown that people tested on foreign languages 50 years after they last sat any exam perform just as well as recent students.

‘We often say if you don’t use a language, you will lose it, but this doesn’t seem to be the case,’ said Professor Monika Schmid, Head of the University of York’s Department of Language and Linguistics.

Researchers from the University of York have shown that people tested on foreign languages 50 years after they last sat any exam perform just as well as recent students (stock image)

Being bilingual has ‘no effect’ on intelligence 

During recent tests, experts from Abertay University in Dundee, found that speaking more than one language didn’t have any cognitive benefit.

Contradictory to Dr Marian’s latest research, they said the widely held belief could be the result of publication bias – where a study only gets published if an effect is found.

They examined cognitive control in a group of people who switched between speaking a Dundonian dialect and standard Scottish English, with cognitive control in two other groups: bilinguals and monolinguals.

They used a test known as the Simon task, which enables psychologists to examine inhibitory control.

The team was surprised to find that the bilingual people performed no better in the cognitive task than those who spoke one language, or a dialect.

In the study, the researchers set out to understand how long our knowledge of foreign languages lasts.

The team enlisted almost 500 participants who had taken French GCSE or A-level between the 1970s and 2020, and tested their French vocabulary and grammar.

Participants were also surveyed on whether or not they had used their French knowledge over the years since their exams.

The results revealed that there was no change in language proficiency over time.

Participants who had taken their exam in the 1970s and not used French since performed at the same level as those who had taken the exam in 2020.

The study also showed that in times of need – such as health emergencies or issues at an airport – participants were able to recall the correct French words at short notice.

This suggests that the brain only needs a small amount of motivation to recall language learning.

‘The knowledge of language is astonishingly stable over long periods of time, compared to other subjects such as maths, history or sciences,’ Professor Schmid said.

‘This is likely because of the way language is stored in memory.

‘Vocabulary is memorised in the same way that facts, dates and names are, for example, and whilst this memory is vulnerable to erosion, grammar is learned in a similar way to riding a bike – a kind of muscle memory, which is much more stable.

‘Vocabulary knowledge, on the other hand, exists in a densely connected network, which means that we need only be reminded of a word that sounds similar to a foreign language word for our brain to recall it – a slight nudge in the right part of the brain and it comes flooding back.’

The researchers describe this system as a ‘language net’, in which it takes just one word to stimulate other parts of the ‘net’ where foreign words are stored.

Professor Schmid explained: ‘We don’t have distinct areas of the brain for different languages, so parts of the English language will overlay with parts of the brain where you have stored the French you learned, for example.

‘If you hear the word “apple” in English, mental representation of the word “pomme” for apple in French will get a small amount of stimulus each time you say it in English. 

While French is one of the most popular GCSEs in the UK, many Brits are nervous when it comes to using their language skills later in life. But a new suggests there's nothing to fear - even if it has been decades since you last studied a foreign language

While French is one of the most popular GCSEs in the UK, many Brits are nervous when it comes to using their language skills later in life. But a new suggests there’s nothing to fear – even if it has been decades since you last studied a foreign language

‘This stimulation is even higher if the two words sound similar in both languages.’

Unfortunately, the researchers say that people won’t just suddenly find themselves fluent in a foreign language after years of disuse.

However, they do suggest that the basics for language are retained in the brain, and it doesn’t take much training to pick a foreign language back up again.

‘Many people are put off revisiting languages they once learnt as they fear they will be forced to relive some of the more “boring” elements of the courses, such as grammar, but our work suggests that this would not be necessary,’ Professor Schmidt concluded. 

‘We hope that it might encourage more people to pick foreign languages back up if they knew it would only take a short amount of time in refresher lessons to bounce back to the original level.’

DO PEOPLE LIE MORE OR LESS IN THEIR SECOND LANGUAGE?

Research suggests that people are less likely to lie if they’re speaking in their mother tongue. 

People fib more when talking in a second language because they are ‘less emotional’, scientists said.

Our first language is often more closely tied to our emotions, which makes us more vulnerable and therefore honest when we’re speaking it.

However, a second language is often associated with more rational thinking which means people feel more distant from it and so find it easier to lie.

Scientists at Bangor University and the University of Manchester found people who speak more than one language interpret facts differently depending on which one they are speaking.

They asked Welsh people who spoke fluent Welsh and English to rate sentences as true or false.

These sentences either had positive or negative connotations.

Participants showed a bias towards categorising positive statements – even if they were false – as being true in both languages.

However, when they were negative, participants responded differently depending on whether they were reading in Welsh or English – despite the fact the information was exactly the same.

Scientists believe people’s native language is more closely tied to our emotions which means we find it easier to be honest. 

Functioning in the second language appeared to protect them against unpalatable truths, and deal with them more strategically, researchers concluded.

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