'Learning languages when young increases fluency'
By JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH 
January 2011

Haifa U researchers find people with Russian as mother tongue more fluent in Hebrew compared to those who speak it as mother tongue.

There is no truth to the belief that learning a number of languages confuses people, and that one language comes at the expense of another, according to University of Haifa researchers.

They found that those who speak two languages more easily learn a third, and can raise their IQ while doing so. They also found that people with Russian as a mother tongue are more fluent in Hebrew compared to those who speak Hebrew as a mother tongue.

“Learning a mother tongue and preserving it do not come at the expense of learning another language,” said Prof. Salim Abu Rabiya and Ektarina Sanitzki of the special education department. “The opposite is true. Speaking Russian only strengthens one’s Hebrew, and fluency in these two languages improves one’s ability to speak English,” the researchers found.

The study examined the contribution of knowing two languages to learning a third tongue. The researchers suggested that speaking two languages – Hebrew and Russian – would make it easier to learn English, compared to pupils who know only Hebrew.

According to the findings, knowing a number of languages improves fluency in one’s native tongue because speaking several languages bolsters a person’s language skills, which are the basis for the ability to learn to read. Beyond learning the language itself, skill in language is an important cognitive function that makes it easier to learn in general. The younger one learns languages, the better, Abu Rabiya said.

Two groups of pupils – a representative sample of boys and girls in sixth grade who learn English as a foreign language – were studied. One group had 40 pupils, all immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whose mother tongue was Russian and who learned Hebrew afterwards. The second group included 42 native Hebrew speakers studying English as a second language in school.

The pupils were examined in groups and individually. In the group meetings, pupils were tested for reading strategies and their familiarity with the rules of writing systems of each language; they were then given personal questionnaires to answer. In the individual meetings, tests in Hebrew and English were given only to the native Hebrew speakers, while the Russian immigrants were also presented with the exact same tests in Russian.

The team compared the results, which showed that native Russian speakers had significantly better control than the native Hebrew speakers not only of the English they learned, but also of the Hebrew they had previously learned as a second tongue. The gap was an average of 13 percent. In writing exercises, they were 20 % better, and in morphological knowledge of the language, 35% better than the native Hebrew speakers.

The Russian speakers, who had the same average IQ as the Hebrew speakers before they started learning English, had average IQ scores that were 7% higher than them after studying the additional tongue. This, the researchers said, showed that the more languages one learns, the higher one’s IQ rises.

The team compared the results, which showed that native Russian speakers had significantly better control than the native Hebrew speakers not only of the English they learned, but also of the Hebrew they had previously learned as a second tongue. The gap was an average of 13 percent. In writing exercises, they were 20 % better, and in morphological knowledge of the language, 35% better than the native Hebrew speakers.

The Russian speakers, who had the same average IQ as the Hebrew speakers before they started learning English, had average IQ scores that were 7% higher than them after studying the additional tongue. This, the researchers said, showed that the more languages one learns, the higher one’s IQ rises.

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