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Boys and girls learn second language differently

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Research has found that girls and boys learn second languages differently which might lead to new strategies for teaching which accommodate those differences.

By monitoring neural activity while English sentences were being read, researchers at Tokyo Metropolitan University saw that boys tend to show more activation in parts of the brain associated with grammatical rules (syntax); girls used a wider range of language information, including speech sounds (phonology) and meaning of words and sentences (semantics).

Prof Fumitaka Homae and team studied Japanese junior high school students learning English as a second language in a school environment. The majority of work into the neuroscience behind learning a second language is based on immigrant populations in the United States, and children in the multi-lingual environment of Europe.

The boys and girls were given a standardised English test and a test of 'Working Memory', a temporary storage in the brain used to organise, manipulate and analyse newly arrived information. They then listened to English sentences, including some with grammatical errors; observations of brain activity were taken using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and event-related potential (ERP) measurements. fNIRS tells us which parts of the brain are active; ERP gives us an idea of how brain activity varies with time.

There are two different strategies at work, boys leverage efficient processing and rule-based 'implicit' thinking; girls draw on a wider range of linguistic information, achieving 'explicit' comprehension of sentences.

The results revealed a surprising disparity in how boys and girls deal with sentences. The girls performed better on the tests, and had more working memory. However, boys showed no correlation between working memory and performance, while girls did.

Looking at brain activity, fNIRS revealed that boys showed increased activation with proficiency in the front of the brain when they heard a correct sentence, while girls showed more at the back.

The front is linked with 'syntactic' processing i.e. rule-based understanding of sentences; the back is associated with a wider range of language processing. Boys displayed an overall decreased response for incorrect sentences; girls showed the exact opposite.

ERPs also showed disparities, with boys exhibiting a strong response to incorrect sentences early on, a phase thought to be associated with 'syntactic' processing. Girls only showed a difference between correct and incorrect sentences at later times.


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