How to surprise an unfazed Frenchman

To the native English speakers among you who have ever attempted to learn French, you will remember the difficulty in differentiating between all those nasal vowels which make all the difference between the words ‘on’, ‘en’ and ‘un’ for example. There is also the difference between the acute ‘u’ sound and the more rounded ‘ou’ – confuse those two and you may end up saying ‘my ass’ when you meant to say ‘my neck’. I once spent about an hour with a very determined American desperate to correctly pronounce ‘tu’ and ‘tous’ although he could barely hear the difference between the two.

To the native French among you, all this will seem silly and obvious of course, for how could one ever fail to distinguish the difference between ‘ass’ and ‘neck’ or ‘you’ and ‘all’. My husband, a Frenchman, was rather struck when I pointed out to our mutual American friend, the one struggling between ‘tu’ and ‘tous’, that the difference between the two words did not just present itself in the vowel sounds. The ‘t’s in the two words are rather different. If you’re saying them correctly, then the positioning of your tongue will be different in preparation for the ‘tu’ (flatter) than for the ‘tous’ (more rounded upwards).

The Frenchman quickly and soundlessly tried this maneuver out in his mouth before looking at me in utter surprise. Clearly never before had he contemplated the possibility that in his native tongue, the letter ‘t’ could be sounded in different ways. This is the mistake people make when learning other languages – assuming that the same letter will in general represent the same sound. The English ‘t’ is not exactly the same as the French or the Italian ‘t’. Often the sound is similar but the tongue is positioned in ever so slightly a different way, and if that positioning is not observed, then whatever you do, you will always end up sounding a little foreign.

The more blatant example of this is the rolled or trilled ‘r’ (like in Italian) vs. the guttural ‘r’ (like in French) vs. the softer way Americans say ‘r’. Your best bet to avoid all these pronunciation difficulties is to learn as many languages as possible before age 12. If you are reading this a little too late, then there are a variety of techniques you can find online to guide your mouth through a series of contortions in a very deliberate attempt to pronounce these foreign sounds. Some will outright incite you to turn towards hard liquor to ‘loosen up your tongue’.  Anything with a video guide and a diagram of your mouth to show tongue positioning is best otherwise the instructions can be confusing as hell and liquor may indeed be needed – good luck!

Nim Chimpsky

What happens when a bunch of academic hippies take a new-born chimp and attempt to raise him like a human in New York with the aim of teaching him sign-language and finally bridging the inter-species communication gap? Well, first they give him a highbrow joke for a name, then they let him smoke weed and ride motorcycles, and finally, when the animal gets too big and is still not displaying use of syntax, they ship him off to an experimental research laboratory.

A couple of decades later, they write memoirs about their time with said chimp, and then the cherry on this sordid cake is the film: the moving documentary Project NimDirector James Marsh managed to interview just about all of the people involved in the process of raising Nim and attempting to teach him sign language – you can see their individual profiles in this Guardian article. In the end, he not only succeeds in showing us the emotional involvement the researchers had with the chimp, he also untangles the love-affairs between the human participants which only added to the delicate and complex nature of the project.

This is a documentary worth watching if only to be reminded that chimps may not have syntax, but they are probably nicer than most humans. I know whose side I’m on in any case.

Why bilingual is better

I recently read an article talking about how bilingualism tends to push back the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I looked into it a bit more and it turns out to be quite old news. For the last decade, different research has been showing that those who speak more than one language on a daily basis have increased cognitive function in old age. Specific experiments have looked into the effects of bilingualism on executive control tasks in older people, and the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Multilingual speakers fare better in every case, not to mention that they have also been shown to be better at multitasking at any age.

It’s interesting to see how different news sources report this type of research. You can see for yourself the contrast between the sober article in The Guardian from 2011, going through the experimental results and quoting the researcher, and the overblown claims of NPR from a few months ago, stating inaccurate things like “speaking more than one language could prevent Alzheimer’s” or “save you from Alzheimer’s disease”. It can’t, if it’s in your genes it’s in your genes, but the added brain function of bilinguals can better fight the damage and delay the symptoms. The New York Times opted for this engaging interview with the research professor in Toronto responsible for the latest positive findings.

Of course, all this only works if in old age you are actively speaking more than one language on a more or less daily basis, not if you learned French in school and use it when you go on holiday to Nice once a year. The best thing then is to learn two languages from the start. It was once commonly thought that bilingual babies would somehow get more confused, and the idea of teaching them two languages was frowned upon. Now we realise that monolingualism is the unusual state of affairs in terms of our history. In his latest book, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond talks about how most tribes-people learn to speak at least 3-4 languages through necessary interaction with neighbouring people, be it play, trade or marriage.

Coincidentally, Diamond also reviewed some of the academic articles mentioned above for Science and then spoke to the BBC about it all a few years ago. So what advantages do bilingual babies, kids and grown-up kids have? Here are some of the reasons why bilingual is better:

  • more flexibility when dealing with changes of rules  
  • better at focusing in confusing situations 
  • better at processing sounds in noisy environments and tuning in to important information
  • augmented attention, inhibition and encoding of sound
  • better at prioritising tasks and multitasking
  • better at editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important detail
  • better at complex spatial reasoning tasks
  • better at learning phonological patterns in a new language
  • and last but not least, according to the Canadians, bilinguals bring in more income