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A neurological approach to bilingual education

 

I recently had the occasion to read a very interesting book on bilingualism in Italian: "Neuropedagogia delle lingue", Franco Fabbro, Astrolabio (2004). After an historical overview of bilingual education, the author explains a clear manner, accessible even to non specialists, how children learn languages and which areas of their brain are involved in this process. Already practiced since ancient times, bilingual education has experienced periods of luck but also of misfortune. Until recently, indeed, the prevailing tendency of language experts and educators has placed particular emphasis on the negative psychological consequences that this form of education would have on children. The bilingual education was strongly suspected of causing not only confusion, but even psychological disorders.

 

It is clear that theories from the beginning of the twentieth century were based on very limited knowledge compared to the information available to today's researchers. Neuroscience has made tremendous progress in the study of brain function in the last fifteen years, leading to surprising results. Simplifying to great extend, we can say that the results of recent studies show that the human memory is divided into independent modules, and this has led to the discovery that the storage of the mother tongue takes place at a location other than the memory of the languages learned in later age. All of this depends on the maturation degree of the brain which, at an early age, has a flexibility that it loses progressively during its maturation. It is this plasticity that allows the brain of a child to learn languages more easily than an adult.

Scholars have identified age groups that define the stages of language learning. From 0 to 3 years a child has the greatest ability to acquire languages perfectly in terms of phonological (pronunciation) and morphosyntactic (grammar and structure). Up to 8 years old a child is still able to learn languages as a mother tongue, without accent and without errors, although this requires a greater effort on his part. After eight years the difficulties increase progressively up to adulthood when learning a language will never be complete. Obviously, the results also depend on the individual genes, which makes us more or less talented for a given activity over another.

In the light of these findings summarized in a concise, but hopefully clear way, Italobimbi promotes a message that goes beyond the simple appeal to support its initiative, but rather wants to raise awareness on the importance of early learning and in-depth learning of languages, whatever they are. We would also like to offer a point of reference to broaden the knowledge of Italian, not to let the Italian language remain a "second" one, but to become part of the culture of our children, to give them the necessary roots for an as peaceful and balanced psychological development as possible.

 

 

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