Looking up languages

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: There’s Extra Time to Learn a Language / View Guide

1. Search for an article about the neurological benefits of being bilingual and summarize what you find.

Possible student response: The Science News Growth Curve blog post “A bilingual brain is prepped for more than a second language,” published 12/31/2014, discusses how the brains of bilingual and monolingual speakers process words. People who speak two languages are constantly activating both languages in their brains. One study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of bilingual and monolingual volunteers as they matched pictures with spoken words. Bilingual volunteers were no faster at completing the task than monolingual volunteers. However, certain regions in bilingual volunteers’ brains did not have to work as hard as the brains of monolingual volunteers. Other studies have shown that bilingual people begin exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease about five years later than monolingual people.

2. Can you find an article about language extinction and preservation? What does it say?

Possible student response: The Science News for Students article “Saving vanishing ‘tongues’,” published 2/6/2014, discusses how languages go extinct and how digital technology can at least preserve endangered languages for future linguistic studies. Currently, there are approximately 7,000 languages spoken worldwide. But by 2100, nearly half of those could become extinct. Mass media, the internet and education pressure children who would speak less common languages to speak more common languages, such as English, Mandarin, Hindi or Spanish. As those children grow up preferring to speak more common languages, and people who spoke the less common languages grow older and die, whole languages can become extinct. Researchers are traveling the world making detailed recordings of speakers of uncommon languages in order to preserve knowledge about those languages.

3. Find and summarize an article that explains why some scientists analyze languages by constructing evolutionary trees.

Possible student response: The Science News article “Searching for the tree of Babel,” published 5/25/2002, describes how vocabulary and grammatical similarities among languages can be used to construct evolutionary trees of languages. By analyzing when and how languages branched from one another, researchers can also learn when and how different groups of people branched off from one another. Trees for closely related languages are more straightforward and reliable. However, language trees are much harder to construct, and much more prone to errors, for languages that are very distantly related. Another complicating factor is that languages often borrow from one another or languages merge to form new languages.