University of Houston research finds potential key to learning a new language

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The Venture

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A new study by University of Houston (UH) researchers may lead to dramatic changes in the way language is taught and learned – especially a second language. These findings are important because statistics show 60 percent of the children in the Houston Independent School District are non-native English speakers, a category on the rise across the United States.

Arturo Hernandez, director of the developmental graduate program in psychology at UH, used neuroimaging methods, as well as behavior techniques, to investigate language acquisition in the bilingual brain, mapping how the bilingual brain processes language acquisition and observing how it changes over time.

“There is a lot of interest in the brain and interest in bilingualism, but few people put those two together,” Hernandez said. “People used to think of the mind as separate from the brain. Now, they understand that what happens in the mind is the product of what the brain does.”

Hernandez, who also serves as director of the Laboratory for the Neural Bases of Bilingualism at UH and is the author of a new book, “The Bilingual Brain,” said recent research explores whether bilinguals have more plasticity and adaptability because they have learned two sounds systems and can learn vocabulary words better than monolinguals. He wondered whether could they learn a third sound system better.

To find out, a UH post-doctoral researcher Pilar Archila-Suerte teamed up with Hernandez and Ferenc Bunta, assistant professor in communication sciences & disorders who specializes in bilingual phonological acquisition. The research team selected Hungarian sounds the participants had never heard before, and that neither resembled Spanish nor sounded like English, to establish a level playing field for monolinguals and bilinguals.

The researchers found…

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