Kids, Language & Brains


Why Be Concerned About 2nd Language Options for Children?

Budget constraints and already tight scheduling are the usual culprits when it comes to defining which classes children will be offered.  It might be instructive for parents here to learn that Chinese children as young as three, four and five are being tutored in English, laying the ground for true bilingualism among these children who will be active consumers and leaders in the years ahead.  What is the usual pattern in our elementary schools?  If they offer 2nd languages at all, they tend to introduce them in middle school, grades 5 or 6 through 8, thus delaying what amounts to a life-long process that must be started early to produce bilingualism. Competition is one way to respond to the challenges of the Chinese approach to early 2nd language education.  Setting that aside for the moment, parents need to understand that early 2nd language learning will assure their children are better prepared for tomorrow, whatever it may bring.  Yes, it's lucky to be born into an English-speaking environment, but it's also limiting.  With English already well in hand, there's an inevitable tendency to conclude the world view that comes with it is the same as the world view of everyone else. And that's a huge mistake. Language has so much to do with the way we perceive, explain and understand the world. With only one language, we have only one point of view.  A single point of view won't serve the next generation well because the world they'll have to maneuver in will be different from the world of their parents. Globalization is a fact of life and its effects are going to become stronger in the years ahead.  Monolinguals will be at a disadvantage. Children of bilingual families should be encouraged to master their "home language" as well as their "school language" --English.  Then they'll be very well-equipped for the world they're going to function in.


“English Only” Isn’t Wrong; It’s Simply Unfair to Children 2

Children depend on adults to take the long view.  When adults don't do this, children--the next generations-- pay the price. In the US that too often translates into monolingualism, as if that's an advantage. Around the world, that translates into the importance of many native languages being dismissed and with more and more languages being placed on the endangered list. For all of us, this translates into a form of cultural impoverishment because language is a complex cultural asset, carrying a world view varying richly from language to language. When a language disappears, its cultural content is usually lost too. Some cultures are fighting to maintain and reinvigorate their natives languages: Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland, Welsh in Wales, Breton in France, Hawaiian in our 50th state, and native American tribal languages, to name a few.  As long as there are fluent speakers of a language, it is still a living language. Keeping languages alive is a mission. In what he calls a bit of a push-back against globalization, linguist David Harrison of Swarthmore College is helping the 600 or so speakers of Papua New Guinea's Matukar Panau create a talking dictionary so the sound, syntax and structure of their language will not vanish completely.  Seven other unusual vanishing languages are also being recorded this way. That's hardly a dent in the half of the world's 7000 languages expected to disappear by the end of this century.  Digital communication tools such as YouTube videos, Facebook pages, ¡Phone apps, websites and specialized fonts are providing a kind of life support to many endangered languages. Being able to see the word and hear it is huge," according to linguist Norvin Richard at MIT.  Reviving a long dormant language becomes possible because of the technically robust digital compendiums that have replaced fragile wax recordings and magnetic tapes. Prof. Harrison, along with other scholars, points out that languages are irreplaceable records of experience and diversity of thought, the many intricacies of which can make you question your own perception of reality.  Robert Lee Hotz, The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 18-19, 2012.


“English Only” Isn’t Wrong; It’s Simply Unfair to Children I

Children have a natural talent for languages. While this was supposedly explained by the claim that all language stems from a  single universal grammar we're born with, that view hasn't stood the test of time. Still, adults continue to be amazed by and and even envious of the uncanny ability of children to pick up other languages so easily.  So what's wrong with simply accepting the dominance of English in the world and letting English-only speaking kids slip by as monolinguals?  Research results tell us that bilingual brains are more resilient and resist going into decline with the natural process of aging.  That's a big factor that needs to be recognized and taken advantage of when children are still young enough to benefit from the readiness of their brains to take in, make sense of and use a language other than their mother tongue.  As they use and continue to use another language as part of their regular means of connecting with family and peers, that language or those languages become part of them and will stay with them.  Here at home our kids can benefit from the presence of many 1st and 2nd generation Spanish speakers for practicing and perfecting their 2nd language skills.   TV and radio provide more easy access to Spanish.  It's really an opportunity that shouldn't be wasted. It is said that even children growing up in non-English speaking families will hold on to their mother-tongue for only a generation or two.  After that, unless our culture begins to value bilingualism, it will be too easy to act as if getting along in English is enough.


Right Brain + Left Brain = Creativity?

While it is often claimed creative people make greater use of the right hemisphere of their brain, this myth is being debunked by researchers. They have discovered that the real source of creativity is the strength of the neural connection between the left and right hemispheres. In a study co-authored by Duke University's David Dunson, distinguished professor of statistics, and Daniele Durante, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Padova in Italy, their perspective comes from the field of "connectomics"  which focuses on brain networks rather than analyzing different brain regions.  Using evidence from MRI scans conducted by Rex Jung, clinical professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, and his team, Dunson and Durante analyzed the collected data looking for statistical differences between brain structures.  They found significant statistical differences in the number of inter-hemispheric connections in the top 15th and lowest 15th percentiles of creativity.  Granting the small size of their sample, Dunson and Durante are quick to say they will need to work with larger and more diverse groups and with altered research designs in future studies.  At this point they are comfortable stating their findings are consistent with recent ideas that creative innovations arise from communication between regions of the brain that ordinarily aren't connected.  Shagun Vashisth, Brain in the News,  April 2017.


Arriving at a Mature Brain

Pinpointing a specific time when a brain can be described as mature is a suspect endeavor. For not only is there no one-size fits all time for an individual brain's maturity, there is no one-size fits all method for measuring brain maturity, according to Abigail Baird, a neuroscientist at Vassar College and a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DBI) member.  Historically, age 18 has been identified as the age of maturity but that's quite arbitrary.  Maturation is about the refinement of circuits and larger networks that produce increasingly coordinated behaviors and brain activity.  Those refinements and improvements in neural coordination are heavily dependent on neurobiology, practice and experience, not to mention individual differences.  As juvenile courts begin taking increased notice of the psychological research on brain development, it is more important than ever for brain science studies to be correctly considered in law and policy decisions.  B.J. Casey, DBI member and director of the Fundamentals of the Adolescent Brain (FAB) at Yale University says using the very term maturity sets us up for failure.  She argues that while there is no single point in time when the brain does everything well, that doesn't mean young people can't make good decisions. As science and public policy meet, it seems as if the real danger is the potential misuse of scientific research. Casey sees close collaboration of scientists and lawmakers as the best way to assure accurate interpretation and application of research findings. Such an outcome stands to benefit society as well as adolescents working their way to maturity.  Kayt Sukel, Briefing Paper, The Dana Foundation, April 4, 2017.


From Use It & Lose It to Use It or Lose It

The point of the title is to track the evolution of scientific thinking about the human brain and how it has changed. Prior to the 1970's scientists generally believed the brain was fixed and resistant to modification.  The analogy with the computer worked then because the brain was considered to be machine-like, a machine destined to show the wear and tear of time leading to inevitable deterioration.  Since then, the thinking has changed dramatically and the computer/machine model has been displaced by a view of the brain as an organism capable of self-healing. Scientists have learned that not only does the brain's circuitry change with experience and activity, when a body part ceases sending sensory input (as in stroke victims), the brain area formerly dedicated to that weakened part can be taken over to perform another function. Today the mainstream view in neuroscience is that brain circuits are constantly changing as we think, perceive, form memories or learn new skills as connections between cells change and strengthen.   It is this capacity to change and strengthen that helps us understand how the brain can be self-healing.  With Alzheimer's as one example, researchers have shown that mental and especially physical exercise can lower the risk of experiencing dementia.   Even having multiple copies of the genetic materials associated with the risk of Alzheimer's is not enough to produce the disease.  How we live matters.  And now, rather than waiting some six weeks following a patient's stroke to intervene and begin active treatment, physicians, realizing how the brain can rewire itself, act quickly to get their stroke patients into therapy/rehabilitation as soon as possible.     Norman Doidge, Brain in the News, February 2015.


Does the Brain Sleep When We Sleep?

I think there's this pervasive misconception that your brain just turns off when you go to sleep, because there's no obvious output.  So says Professor Sara Aton from her University of Michigan lab.  Following this reasoning, many other scientists had no interest in the study of sleep as a research topic.  Yet Aton would beg to differ. Even though she and her team use mice as subjects in their sleep studies and are quick to note that translations from animal studies to human studies can be problematic, they are quite sure that, like mice brains, our brains keep working as we sleep. For Aton, while we're sleeping, our brains are learning. That's good to know because we spend a third of our lives sleeping.  Sleep is essential to our survival. Recent tools such as brain imaging show that some parts of the brain are actually more active during sleep.  Aton has found that sleep is critical for learning new things. When new memories form, the brain changes the structure and function of its neural circuits. Disrupting sleep disrupts those essential brain changes; sleep actually helps the brain absorb new experiences.   As an example, people studying new vocabulary words retain them better for the next day's quiz if they can sleep within three hours of first learning. Why?  Sleep is needed  in a certain window of time, along with activity in a particular part of the brain and protein synthesis in that circuit for the brain to retain new information.  As much as she values sleep, Aton's ongoing study of sleep aims to determine which aspects of sleep are necessary for memory formation in the brain and which aspects of sleep are sufficient to achieve the same thing.   Elizabeth Wason, Brain in the News, March 2017.  


English, Everyone?

In an earlier post here talking about "Language: the Unity Factor" (5/07/2016), it was surprising to learn educated young Tanzanians were resisting government and educational leaders who wanted them to adopt Swahili as the lingua franca of Africa. They aren't buying it. Instead, they want to learn English.  To their way of thinking, the path to success requires them to have a good working knowledge of English. For them, especially in a country/on a continent with so many tribal languages, it seems quite natural for English to become the language for everyone in Africa to unite behind. They are not alone in seeing the value of learning English over other languages. The headline of a BBC report, "Universities compete by teaching English," speaks volumes. The report goes on to say the rise of universities teaching in English, rather than in their own local language, has become a global phenomenon. According to the same report, almost 8,000 courses are being taught in English in leading universities in non-English speaking countries.  Five million international students travel abroad each year to study in countries where English is often the teaching language. Students opting to stay home for their education want the same opportunities. Although Europe appears to be leading the trend toward awarding degrees with English as the key language, China, Taiwan, Japan and Thailand are also following this pattern.  Given the amount of cultural knowledge that is conveyed through languages, it is reasonable to decry this preference for English.  At the same time, competition from Mandarin Chinese is a growing reality, especially in Africa.  It seems English-speakers, native and non-native, are in a race to see which language, English or Mandarin, will be the dominant world language in the years ahead.   Nic Mitchell, BBC News/Business, February 3, 2016.


The Value of Overlearning

In the usual situation in which you stop training on a new skill immediately after you've mastered it, the area of the brain related to the skill remains plastic, still in a ready-to-learn state. Imagine that you now have the choice of training on another new if similar skill or of continuing to train on the first skill beyond the point of mastery.  If you want to maintain that first skill, you need to choose the second option.  Why?  Because the brain is so adept at learning new tasks that if you train on a second similar task while your brain is still in a plastic state, it appears the first skill will be overwritten. In this study, Takeo Watanabe, professor of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University, one of its authors, focuses on the brain's flexibility and its ability to learn.   He found that overlearning causes the amount of glutamate in the brain to diminish, and it is this chemical that keeps the brain plastic, primed for learning.  At the same time, GABA, a chemical that stabilizes the brain, increases with overlearning.  This information is important for teachers who need to understand the value of establishing a good foundation on a basic topic before moving on to more complex but related elements of that topic.   Robert Goldstone, distinguished professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University and not part of this study, urges discernment when deciding for or against overlearning.  He agrees overlearning has its benefits, but he cautions overlearning by itself is not enough; other learning techniques are also needed for reinforcement.  Kendra Pierre-Louis, Brain in the News, March 2017.


Understanding the Emotional Style of Your Brain

Emotion works with cognition in an integrated and seamless way to enable us to navigate the world of relationships, work and spiritual growth.  So says neuroscientist Richard Davidson in the book he wrote along with former Wall Street Journal science writer, Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain.  Thanks to the new understanding of how the brain can change in form and function over time due to its neuroplasticity, we now know it's not only life experiences that can cause the brain to change.  Changes also come about as a result of our own mental activity. Davidson makes the case we can reprogram our brains to help shed negativity and lead better and more productive lives.  He contends this new kind of research holds significant implications for the treatment of mental illness, attention deficit disorders and autism.  Dr. Davidson believes individuals can make changes on their own, outgrowing an emotional style used into adulthood to opt for one that describes them more accurately.  He identifies the six dimensions of our emotional style as resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context and attention. Because we score so differently when measured by these six dimensions, even falling on different parts of each scale, it becomes easier to understand our varied reactions to what life throws at us. Meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction are the secular forms of behavioral therapy he values because they allow the observer to look at thoughts and feelings from the perspective of a nonjudgmental third party.  Laura Landro, Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2012.