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How To Learn Sign Language

Three reasons to preserve (and develop) a heritage language: Charles Chang at TEDxRiceU 2014

Translator: Thomas Farmer
Reviewer: Mirjana Čutura So, just to begin, like many Americans,
I’m a second generation immigrant. My parents came to the US
from Korea in the ’70s, and my older sister
was born shortly thereafter. So being native Korean speakers,
my parents did what was natural, and they started to raise
my sister in Korean. But that all changed
when she went into kindergarten because she had trouble
understanding the teacher at first since she wasn’t being exposed
to English at home. So early on in the school year, the teacher sort of pulled
my parents aside and recommended that they switch
to speaking only English at home. And so fast-forward 20 years, my older sister’s forgotten
most of her Korean, and my younger sister and I, we never, you know, got the chance
to be raised in Korean. So you could sort of say that we were robbed of the chance
at a bilingual childhood. Now, some of you might be thinking,
“Well, what’s the big tragedy here? Because English is really the language that you need to get by
in the United States, and, you know, we all learned English
just like we needed to.” So maybe the teacher was right. Maybe being raised in English
helped us become the best English speakers
that we could be. And meanwhile, there are, throughout the country,
like in Arizona and also here in Texas, some outspoken
American language nativists who believe that, as important as
English is in the US, it should actually be given
greater status, that it should be the only
language spoken in the US or at least the official language. It’s also plain to see
that you can get very far in this country, just speaking English. So, this guy, for instance,
he’s doing pretty well, I’d say, for example. So I mean, if you can become
the President of the United States, just speaking English, then what’s the problem
with being monolingual, with just speaking one language? Well, the problem is that
that sort of linguistic complacency, it’s led to these systematic
language deficits in the United States. And this is something actually
the President has alluded to himself, saying that, in this increasingly
interconnected world, we need advanced foreign language skills. So, actually, a number of major news outlets
have reflected these sentiments with major headlines
that kind of show this recurring theme of a language skills shortage
in both the public and private sectors. And these are headlines
just from the last two years. So, how to fill this gap? Well, what I’d like to suggest is that the gap is not
as large as one might think, because a lot of these languages
that are in need are, in fact, already spoken in the US, namely as heritage languages. The last census showed that over one in five Americans
over the age of five, they regularly speak a language
other than English at home, and there’s great diversity
in the languages that are being spoken: not just Spanish, but also Cantonese,
Vietnamese, Arabic, and so on. So if you are a person who’s trying
to acquire a heritage language, you know, why would you want to do this? Because what do you have to gain, really,
from developing a language that is not the dominant
language in the US? Well, there’s a number of reasons. And what I’m going to do
in the next 10 minutes or so is to try to show you, using the tools
of modern linguistics and psychology, three scientific reasons why it actually makes a lot of sense
to actively work to preserve and even develop your proficiency in
and use of the heritage language rather than letting it die. So the first has to do
with these cognitive benefits that are associated with regularly using
more than two languages. And the idea here
is that using two languages is a form of cognitive training because when you know
more than one way of saying something, when you know two ways
of saying everything, the task of speaking
ends up being actually quite difficult because you’re constantly needing to focus
and block out irrelevant information and make a quick decision about how you’re supposed to say
this thing that you’re trying to express. And a number of psychological studies have shown that that type of experience,
of constantly navigating two languages, essentially amounts to a form
of cognitive training that has serious benefits
even beyond the domain of language. So some of these studies have focused on people’s ability
to focus on important information and to ignore or suppress
irrelevant information, using tasks like the one schematized here, where the objective is to press the button
that matches the dot in color. And what you notice is that there’s actually two pieces
of information about the buttons. There is the color of the button
and also its position, whether it’s the button on the left
or the button on the right. Now, in the case where the button
you need to press matches the dot
both in color and in position, the task is easy because both color
and position are telling you, “Press the blue button on the left.” So you don’t have to ignore anything. On the other hand,
when position is misleading, and you actually have to actively ignore
the position information in order to press the right button – the correct button here
is the green button on the right, which is not aligned with that green dot – then that task becomes a lot harder. And so, naturally, you expect people to be a little slower,
at least, in the harder condition because they have to actively ignore
that irrelevant position information. What’s amazing is that bilinguals
are hardly fazed by this. So when you look at the amount
of extra time it takes people to respond in that kind of task
in the harder condition, where they have to ignore
this irrelevant information, in contrast to the monolinguals,
who are shown in the solid line here, they show, you know, a delay,
as you would expect. But the bilinguals
show virtually no delay. And this is true
all the way up until age 60. And even in old age, the bilinguals are still doing
a lot better than the monolinguals. And this dovetails nicely
with some other findings that show that the normal
cognitive decline that is associated with aging
and also pathologies like dementia, they present significantly later in people
who are bilingual than monolingual. So in essence, life with two languages
keeps the mind sharp, and it does this
because of the mental demands that it places on you on a daily basis. Okay. So, moving on to the second reason for maintaining and developing
a heritage language. Heritage speakers,
they have this natural head start over people who have
no previous exposure to the language. And that is something
that is really a national resource and can be taken advantage of. So, one way in which you can get
this knowledge that sometimes people
don’t even remember or have no conscious knowledge of is hypnosis. And so a lot of people have been exposed
to some childhood language, but they don’t really remember it anymore. They don’t have
any conscious knowledge of it. And it’s been reported that under hypnosis,
people can be made to access that kind of deep buried
language knowledge that they are not consciously aware of. So that’s pretty cool. And you might think,
“It’s a little spooky too.” But most people don’t have access
to a professional hypnotist every time they want to speak
their heritage language. So is there maybe a better way
or more practical way of accessing this knowledge that can help you speak
a different language? And there is, as it turns out. Basically: relearn the language. So one example of this heritage head start
expressing itself in relearning comes from a study of heritage
learners of Spanish in LA, and when you look at the way
they pronounce Spanish, you can basically measure
this with accent readings. So if you take native Spanish speakers,
and you ask them to rate the accents of some people
that they’re hearing on headphones, native speakers, they score very high
near the top of this five-point scale. That’s as you would expect;
they’re native speakers. That’s the case both in the pronunciation
of individual sounds as well as their fluent narrative. The novice learners, the total beginners – these are college undergraduates
learning Spanish for the first time – they sound pretty heavily accented, and that’s basically reflected
in these much lower accent scores. Now, if you look
at the childhood overhearers – these are people who received
consistent exposure to Spanish, but only up until school age – they are significantly
better than these novice learners. And this is remarkable because they really only
had experience hearing Spanish. They didn’t really speak Spanish. They never really
learned to speak Spanish, and yet that very early exposure, hearing Spanish years later,
more than 10 years later is giving them this measurable
advantage in speaking Spanish when they go to relearn it in college. But, you know, those people were exposed
to Spanish for maybe six years, so they did pick up a few words and had a little bit of experience
saying a few things in Spanish. So maybe that was the source
of this linguistic advantage that you’re seeing here. And so, for that reason, people have gone further back in time
to see whether heritage language exposure that’s limited to just
the first year of life, definitely before kids started to speak, whether that’s also associated
with a linguistic advantage. And that’s exactly the type of thing
that you see when you look at adoptees. So if you look at Korean American adoptees who were adopted to, typically,
a very white community where there’s no Korean
speakers basically, and you ask them to hear
some difficult-to-hear Korean sounds, they do better. So Korean has two types of sounds that are typically very difficult
for English speakers to distinguish. They’re these so-called lax
and aspirated consonants. So a word beginning
with a lax “b,” for instance, is (Korean) “bal,” which means “foot.” And a word beginning with an aspirated “p”
is (Korean) “pal,” which means “arm.” So these are words, you know,
that you don’t want to mix up, especially, like, at the doctor’s office. Yet for most of you, they probably
sound almost exactly the same. (Korean) Bal, foot. (Korean) Pal, arm. So these are, you know,
some pretty hard-to-hear sounds. And when you look
at native speakers, you know, they have no trouble
distinguishing these sounds, but novice learners, total beginners
in their Korean class, they have a little bit more trouble. They have significantly more trouble. Now, in the middle here, the adoptees,
they have, again, no conscious knowledge. They do not remember
knowing anything about Korean. They do significantly better. And that’s remarkable because, again,
they don’t remember anything about Korean, and yet that early experience,
just one year of experience is expressing itself in how they do
when they relearn the language. Okay, so moving on to the third advantage or the third benefit of developing
a heritage language. Having experience in another language
serves to sort of make you more adaptable because it expands the range of resources that you can use to tackle
the language that you’re encountering. So to demonstrate what I mean by this, consider the case of final
“p,” “t,” and “k” in English. So English has these sounds
“p,” “t,” and “k,” and they can occur at the ends of words. So a word like “wheat,”
for instance, it ends in “t,” but these final sounds
are often, like, swallowed in English, or they’re kind of not fully pronounced
in conversational speech. So a word like “wheat,”
like “wheat flour” – you can say it like “wheat”
with a fully pronounced “t,” or you can say it like “wee”
with no final burst of air which really helps you tell
that the word is “wheat,” and not “weep” with a “p,” meaning “cry,” and not “week” with a “k,”
meaning “seven days.” So, to reiterate, in English, these sounds are often
but not always pronounced this way whereas in other languages,
like Korean and Thai and Cantonese, those sounds are always
pronounced that way. So what that means is, then,
that Korean speakers, for example, they receive more practice,
they hear these sounds more often, and they get more experience with learning how to perceive
these difficult-to-hear sounds. So the question you might ask then is, “Well, what about
these Korean Americans then who have this early exposure to both
of these languages, English and Korean? Is it the case that that early
Korean exposure is harmful, that it hurts their
perception of English?” Because overall, in terms
of just hours in the day, they can’t spend
as much time hearing English, because some of that time
they’re hearing Korean. So they’re spending less time
hearing English overall than monolingual English speakers
who are only hearing English around them. On the other hand,
maybe it doesn’t do that. And instead, maybe there’s a beneficial effect,
maybe it helps them because, actually, that sort of experience can train you in learning
how to deal with these types of sounds even if that experience
comes from a language that is different from the one
that you’re actually hearing. So the experience is from Korean – that kind of linguistic training
is coming from Korean – and can be applied to English, maybe. So, which of these is it? Does that early Korean exposure
hurt their perception of English, or does it improve
their perception of English? It’s the latter. So when you ask people to identify final sounds that are not
“p” and “t” and “k,” so just kind of regularly
pronounced sounds, everyone, native Korean speakers,
native English speakers, and heritage Korean speakers,
they do very well because those sounds are easy. They’re not particularly hard. Whereas the final
“p,” “t,” and “k” sounds – the heritage speakers
do significantly better at doing this than the English speakers. And this is also the case
if you ask them to do an easier task. So instead of just saying, “Is this ending
in a ‘p’ or a ‘t’ or a ‘k’?” but you just ask them to say, “Are these two words
the same or different?” Heritage speakers are much better
or significantly better at telling that “wheat” without the final puff
is different from “wee” than the other groups, then, in particular, the monolingual
native English speakers that have no experience with Korean. So this is remarkable because these people
are essentially showing better than native
comprehension of English, and this is the result, essentially,
of them having this experience from another language. What this means, then, is that heritage language experience
is triply beneficial. On the one hand, it may confer
these cognitive benefits that generalize
beyond the domain of language. Also, development of this experience can capitalize
upon this inherent advantage that heritage speakers
have over total beginners. And that’s the case even if they,
you know, don’t really remember or have conscious knowledge
of that experience early in life. And finally, knowing a language
that is not English, knowing a language
other than your primary language can kind of increase
your set of mental tools that you can use to deal with language. In the case of the Korean Americans, they have two strategies
for hearing these final sounds. They can pay attention
to that final puff of air, which is what monolingual
English speakers do, or they can look
at other parts of the speech, like the vowel sound that precedes
that final consonant, which is what you do in languages in which those final sounds
are always swallowed like that – you pay attention
to other parts of the speech. So the pursuit of that sort
of open-mindedness and mental flexibility, it’s a pretty lofty goal, but I think it is something that I think we can all agree
is a vision worth sharing. That sort of life-long pursuit of just being able to consider
multiple possibilities, that, I think, is something that we
can try to do over our entire lives. Thanks. (Applause)

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