ESL- English as a Second Language

Posted by Hans Lindgren DC on 6 April 2014 | 0 Comments

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This post has been triggered by some recent comments about the DNS courses that I read on another site, where the author had stated some personal challenges they’d faced attending a DNS course; after giving the difficulties noted a great deal of thought, I became interested in the mechanics of the problem and thought I’d research the issue and try to find the answers. 

The comments were much in line with that the lecturers spoke very little English so the participant had problems following what was going on.

After reading the comments my first reaction was to question how I can so easily follow the lecturers/instructors from the DNS program, while another person obviously struggles enormously with it. Can it be that I am personally having an advantage as English is my second language?

There have been many times I wished my English was better, so I could speak it without my fairly strong Swedish accent.  After performing some literature searches on the ability to understand accents and the advantages of being bilingual I don’t envy anyone with English as the primary language anymore.  I have also started to realize how fortunate I have been growing up in a country where there was a great emphasis on foreign language learning (mother tongue plus three).

Let’s first look at the language distribution in the world in order of number of speakers (2010):

  1. Mandarin – with 955 million speakers (14.4% of our global population)
  2. Spanish- with 407 million speakers (6.15% )
  3. English – with 359 million speakers (5.43%)
  4. Hindi- with 311 million speakers (4.7%)
  5. Arabic – with 293 million speakers (4.43%)
  6. Portuguese- with 218 million speakers (3.27%)

An interesting question is why an English speaking person often expects the Chinese to speak English, but the Chinese don’t expect anyone from the English speaking world to speak Mandarin.

Why do some individuals struggle with accents more than others?

The two parts of the brain critical for language and speech development are called Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.  Broca’s area is involved in speech articulation and producing sound while Wenicke’s area deals with more with comprehension of words.

Let’s look closer at Wernicke’s area; after passing through the auditory cortex, neural sound information moves to Wernicke’s area, located in the left hemisphere of the brain. This area turns the impulses into recognizable words and phrases, thus meaningful communication. Communication difficulties between two individuals are often not just the result of the speaker’s limited language skills and a strong accent, but the listener’s insufficient processing ability in the Wernicke’s area of the brain. We often see that individuals with very limited exposure to foreign languages or accented version of their own language suffer from these poor processing skills. Fortunately it is an ability that can be practised, so individuals who struggle to understand foreign accents should expose themselves to more opportunities to enhance the processing competence.

“I can’t understand your accent, so keep talking”

There is often a lag in understanding an accent, so people who have a hard time making themselves understood should speak several sentences to allow the listener to catch-up to the accent. 

The brain has a tendency to doubt foreign accents   

 Research by University of Chicago suggests that non-native accents make speech somewhat difficult for native speakers to parse and thereby reduces the cognitive fluency, which is the ease with which the brain processes stimuli, and this they found causes people to doubt the accuracy of what is said. Not surprisingly people prefer stimuli that are easy to process. Instead of perceiving their speech as harder to understand, natives are prone to perceive their statements as less truthful.

Several studies suggest that a modest disruption of cognitive fluency prompts individuals to think critically. For example a study at University of Michigan found that formatting a test in a difficult to read font, making people work harder, dramatically decreased the number of careless mistakes.  The final comment of their study is for students to take heed: “Practise parsing your non-native lecturer’s accented speech as it might augment your analytical skills”

Bilingual benefits

Researchers have demonstrated numerous advantages to learning a new language beyond mere communication. People who are bilingual are better able to carry out two tasks at once, switching back and forth between activities more seamlessly and weeding out irrelevant information.

Research also suggests that true native fluency in any language can only be gained in early childhood, and individuals will never again be as adept with languages as when they are born. There are 6800 languages in the world and a newborn is able to learn any of them depending upon where the baby is born. The language talent fades fast and as early as 9 months after birth some of the language synapses start getting pruned away. Whilst it is not impossible to learn a new language later in life, it does get more difficult the older we get (U.C San Diego).

Learning a second language later on in childhood after gaining proficiency in the first (native) language does in fact modify the brain’s structure, specifically the inferior frontal cortex. The cortex is a multi-layered mass of neurons that plays a major role in cognitive functions such as thought, language, consciousness and memory.  Studies suggest that the task of acquiring a second language after infancy stimulates new neural growth and connections among neurons in ways seen in acquiring complex motor skills such as juggling. “The later in childhood the second language is acquired, the greater are the changes in the inferior frontal cortex” said Dr Denise Klein, researcher in the Neuro’s Cognitive Neuroscience unit and a lead author of the paper published in the journal Brain and Language 2013.

Foreign language learning is much more a cognitive problem solving activity than a linguistic activity. Studies have shown repeatedly that foreign language learning increases critical thinking skills, creativity and flexibility of mind in young children. Students who are learning a foreign language out-score their non-foreign language learning peers in the verbal and some math sections of standardized tests. A 2007 study in Harwich, Massachusetts, showed that students who studied a foreign language outperformed their peers on The M Comprehensive Assessment System after 2-3 years, and significantly outperformed them after 7-8 years on all MCAS subtests.

Additionally, Bilinguals have denser grey matter in their language centres than monolinguals, and Bilinguals can more easily focus on two tasks at once. They think more analytically and parts of their brain devoted to memory, reasoning and planning are larger than those of monolinguals.

What are the most commonly listed advantages of being bilingual?

  1. Brain growth: Language centres in the brain actually grow as a result of successful language learning. The better you learn, the more those vital areas of the brain grow (Mårtensson et al., 2012).
  2. Stave off dementia: Bilingualism delays Alzheimer’s disease in susceptible people by as much as five years (Craik et al., 2010). Seems incredible, but the studies are continuing to support this result. To put this in context: the effect on dementia of learning another language is much greater than anything achievable with the latest drugs.
  3.  Hear language better: Being bilingual can lead to improved listening skills, since the brain has to work harder to distinguish different types of sounds in two or more languages (Krizman et al., 2012).
  4.  Become more language sensitive: Infants in bilingual households can distinguish languages they’ve never even heard before (Werker & Sebastian-Galles, 2011). Just being exposed to the different sounds in, for example, Spanish and Catalan, helps them tell the difference between English and French.
  5. Boost your memory: Babies brought up in a bilingual environment have stronger working memories than those brought up with only one language (Morales et al., 2013). This means they are better at mental calculation, reading and many other vital skills.
  6.  Better multi-tasking: Bilingual people can switch from one task to another more quickly. They show more cognitive flexibility and find it easier to adapt to unexpected circumstances (Gold et al., 2013)
  7.  Increased attention: Bilinguals have stronger control over their attention and are better able to limit distractions (Bialystok & Craik, 2010).
  8. Double the activation: Cognitive boosts, like improved attention and better multi-tasking, may come because bilingual people have both languages activated at the same time, and must continually monitor which one is appropriate (Francis, 1999). All that switching back and forth confers the mental benefits.
  9. New ways of seeing: Learning a new language can literally change the way you see the world. Learning Japanese, for example, which has basic terms for light and dark blue, may help you perceive the colour in different ways (Athanasopoulos et al., 2010).
  10. Improve your first language: Since learning a second language draws your attention to the abstract rules and structure of language, it can make you better at your first language. As Geoffrey Willans said: “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two”

“I can explain it to you, but I cannot understand it for you”

Sometimes it is easier to blame the lack of understanding on the lecturer’s poor language instead of the participant’s ability to comprehend.

One problem I can identify in comprehension of the DNS program is that many practitioners rush through the courses A-D as fast as they possibly can without spending the required time to become proficient in the methods. Becoming a fully trained DNS practitioner not only involves taking the courses to get the knowledge, but also spending a great deal of time practising the skills in our clinics. I would recommend spending a full year working with the methods between each level of the courses.

If someone cannot elicit the required responses in Reflex Locomotion they should practise more, not just take another course. You cannot get good at something unless you practise the skill properly!

Some of the DNS instructors from the Prague-school might have an accent on their English, but always remember that their English is still much better than our Czech.  For many of them English is not even their second language, but the third or for some of them even the fourth!

Imagine if in the future DNS for some reason only would be available in Czech, and we would first have to learn the language. Yet, think of all the extra advantages we would get from learning a new language.

It takes more than a lot of courses to become a specialist- It takes Experience!

In my 30 years of practising Chiropractic, DNS is the closest to “Therapeutic Magic” I have come across.  

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