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Learning Side by Side: How my 4 Month Old is Teaching Me Russian

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There are certain animals in the wild who resort to camouflage when faced with imminent danger or an irrational fear of it. When I immigrated to Canada I relied on the same tactic of blending in to get me through senior kindergarden. With stringent fervor I shunned my native language and forbid my parents from uttering any drop of Russian in any public place. Before I knew it my accent had dissolved and English superseded my mother tongue.

Since leaving the playground I no longer need to preserve a distorted inclination to fit in and am finally ready to reclaim my Soviet roots. Motivation would not have stung my expat coattails were it not for my new role as parent to my Canadian-born little girl. Contrary to the ethos that governed my earlier years, being different and standing out does have it's advantages, especially for someone born into our globalized world. There is also countless research that shows the benefits of learning two languages from birth ranging from creativity to a delay in neuron degeneration in later life.

By exposing my daughter to Russian I am not only granting her an earpiece to eavesdrop on her distant kin I am also moulding her mind to handle learning differently. Ellen Bialystok, a research professor of psychology at York University has found that bilinguals are more adept at mastering the side of the brain responsible for executive functioning -- multitasking, solving logic problems -- while also improving neural circuitry.

Although stacks of research pave the way for early language learning I still find myself wondering if I am slowly losing my own mind by talking endlessly to my newborn. Initially it was nearly impossible to crack the poker face she so skillfully presented every time I chimed my favourite riddles. As the days pass, she coos back more and more and I can see a faint impulse to mimic every syllable. To steer her toward a second language that I admit to having scarce knowledge of I assumed it would be best to prop her in front of an infant language learning DVD and be on my merry way.

Before embarking on a Netflix marathon while distracting her with Slavic clauses and pronouns I fortunately stumbled upon Dr. Patricia Kuhl's research on newborn language faculty. Kuhl and her team at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences in Washington tapped into infants brains using a noninvasive Magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine to track spatial localization while phonetic units of speech were presented.

She found that monolingual six month olds could discern between phonetic sounds in multiple languages even if they had not heard them prior. But at 10 to 12 months these babies could no longer distinguish sounds from the language they were accustomed to hearing at home. The reverse occurred in babies from bilingual households. While they could not discriminate differences in languages at six months old, they could detect differences at 10 to 12 months. Kuhl suggests this provides evidence that the experiences and interactions of the bilingual babies shape their brains and arms them for further learning.

Kuhl then conducted an experiment where 10 to 12 month old American babies were exposed to Mandarin for 12 sessions on a daily basis. By the end of the experiment the American babies performed as well on the brain scans as Taiwanese babies who were exposed to Mandarin from birth. The catch is that these babies were spoken to by someone fluent in Mandarin. A control group was assessed who were exposed to the same lesson through a television set. These babies showed no improvement in perceiving Mandarin despite spending just as much time with it.

So much for sitting idly by and letting my baby do all the work. It seems as though the only way to steep my child in the Russian language is if we tackle it together. My mother was so enthused by my prodigal return she quickly assembled flash cards to get us started. Along with the Dr. Seuss classics we have begun to supplement our reading with some foreign children's books as well. To my surprise I have found it exciting to restore my lost language and cannot wait for us both to discard the camouflage completely.

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