Kids, Language & Brains


It’s Mindboggling!


Spanish teachers and students should find this page mindboggling!  It's a great opportunity for students to play with their 2nd language to see how well they can manage.  A real skill builder!

See more at:

Mindboggling_cover Packed with information about the brain in a fun format of games, riddles, and puzzles for elementary and middle school students. (PDF)

Find the whole series, in Spanish and English, on the Mindboggling Page.






The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual

Advances in technology over the recent past mean researchers can peer deeper into the brain to investigate how bilingualism interacts with and changes cognitive and neurological systems.  

  • Bilingual brains show both languages are active, simultaneously.  As the sounds arrive sequentially and kick start the guessing game of what the incoming word(s) might be, both languages play active roles in the process of figuring it out.  This co-activation creates persistent linguistic competition which causes the brain to make choices, to create control mechanisms that enhance brain functioning.   The ability to regulate attention, to force inhibition of one language by the other gives bilinguals an advantage in such areas as conflict management because of their well-honed ability to practice inhibitory control.  These benefits to the language networks also impact neuronal activation and brain structure.
  • Improved cognitive and sensory processing may help a bilingual person better process environmentally-based information, leading to clearer signals for learning.  These benefits start in infancy.  Bilingual people have an advantage learning a third language, and adults who learn a 2nd language reap the same benefits as bilingual children.  In addition to enriched cognitive control, bilinguals benefit from improved metalinguistic awareness (using language as a tool for manipulation and exploration), better memory, visual-spatial skills and even creativity.  Being able to explore a culture directly by using its language and being able to talk with people from that culture are other advantages bilinguals have in 2nd language social settings.
  • Finally, being bilingual appears to have a positive impact on the aging brain, causing the inevitable decline to slow while helping to maintain the cognitive reserve that keeps brain networks functioning efficiently even as the brain ages. If the brain is an engine, bilingualism may help to improve its mileage.  Given what we are learning about the benefits of bilingualism, claims for its support and prioritizing are easy to justify. Http:// of 10/31/2012

2nd Language Learning: Children vs. Adults, Round II

Once language structures are established, say for the mother tongue, it becomes harder to build another such structure for another language.  What a team of neuroscientists at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research have learned is that in addition to this structural problem, certain elements of language learning are blocked by adults' more highly developed cognitive skills.  While effort is usually rewarded by eventual success, in this case the harder the adults tried to decipher the language's morphology, the structure and deployment of linguistic units such as root words, suffixes, and prefixes, the worse their results.   Linguist Elissa Newport's hypothesis is that adults' greater brainpower--due to a more highly developed prefrontal cortex than children's--may interfere with certain elements of learning language.  This research is exciting because it provides evidence indicating that effortful learning leads to different results depending upon the kind of information learners are trying to master.   The theory of language acquisition being tested here suggests there are two kinds of memory needed:  procedural memory and declarative memory.  Declarative memory stores knowledge and facts while procedural memory guides tasks performed without conscious awareness of how we learned them.  High effort is rewarded in declarative memory--learning vocabulary and certain rules of grammar--but it seems to get in the way of procedural memory.


You Know the Joke

What do you call a person who speaks many languages?  A polyglot.  What do you call a person who speaks two languages?  Bilingual.  And what do you call a person who speaks only one language?  An American.  A rueful commentary, it's not even funny, but more importantly, it's no longer true.  According to the 2007 U.S. Census, more than 20% of Americans over the age of five speak a language other than English at home.  This represents an increase of  140% since 1980.  According to an Associated Press report, some 66% of children around the world are being raised bilingual in a linguistic environment that is, for the majority of the world's population, bilingual or multilingual.  The story behind these statistics is fascinating and potentially life-changing.  Look for The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual by Viorica Marian, Ph.D., and Anthony Shook on the Dana Foundation website of 10/31/2012, a vital clearing house for brain-focused research.


The Adolescent Brain: A New Phase of Pliability

Although the so-called window of opportunity for 2nd language learning is usually portrayed as closing by adolescence, new research suggests this is a misreading.   Yes, an adolescent just starting a 2nd language is facing higher demands from every direction, including hormones, than is the younger student.   What this research shows, however, is that adolescent brains are again, in some ways, just as open to learning as the brains of infants.  This period is defined as one of opportunity but also one of vulnerability.  According to psychologist Laurence Steinberg in his new book Age of Opportunity:  Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence challenging and novel experiences can be very beneficial and harmful ones particularly damaging.   Adolescent students of 2nd language should be exposed to the cultural riches of their chosen language(s) and asked to do a lot of  intellectual stretching.  They're game!    For more see Pliable Brains Mark Adolescence--Just As in Babyhood in Brain in the News, Vol 21.No. 9. , October 2014, a free newsletter from the Dana Foundation.


Why Failing at a Language as an Adult Is Not All Bad

While it's well known that young children are the most natural language learners of all, the plasticity of the human brain guarantees that even mature adults can learn a second language if they're willing to put in the necessary time and energy.  The beauty of this commitment,  detailed in the light-hearted opinion piece by William Alexander, "The Benefits of Failing at French,"  is that even if progress toward fluency is much slower and frustration much higher for adults, there are rewards all the same.   These can include:  dramatically improved basic cognitive ability as well as verbal and visual memory, a veritable mental fountain of youth for the older brain.  Everyone getting along in years and beginning to spot some of the inevitable signs of decline will appreciate the value of such an endeavor.  For the complete article, see New York Times Opinion Page  7/16/2014.


2nd Language Learning: Children vs. Adults, Round 1

Strengths are different:
Where language learning is concerned, children's strengths and adults' strengths are quite different.  Adults, with their focused brain power can easily pick up the vocabulary needed for shopping or going to a restaurant in a foreign country.  However, children pick up on the "subtle nuances of language" adults often miss.  This difference helps explain why children living in a foreign country can become fluent in a few short months, much to the fascination and frustration of their parents who will struggle longer and less successfully.

The developing brain:
It is the structure of the brain itself that accounts for this 'sensitive period' for learning language, a period which  seems to end with adolescenceThe young brain is equipped with neural circuits that can analyze sounds and build a coherent set of rules for constructing words and sentences out of these sounds.  That children are more skilled at absorbing certain tricky elements of language is nothing new to linguists.  They performs better than adults in their command of the grammar and structural components of language, even picking up on idiosyncratic aspects of language native speakers draw on unconsciously.  The problem for adults is the language structures of their first language make it difficult for them to build another set of structures for the new language.  Difficult yes, but not impossible!

source:  "Try, Try Again? Study Says No"   from Brain in the News  9/2014  free newsletter from


Working with Kids’ Natural Empathy

On the first day of class when their new teacher spoke to them only in her native tongue, her young students were a bit puzzled but not put off. Instead, they listened intently, following her body language and other cues to help them understand what she wanted them to know/to do. This was the regular class method until the day when another teacher entered the classroom and spoke to their teacher in English. Anticipating their teacher's humiliation, the children quickly interceded as translators. They didn't know until weeks later their teacher was perfectly competent in English. With the pattern of speaking only in the target language firmly in place by then, it was the only language the children relied on during their class.

As second language teachers,whether native speakers of the target language or not, we need to remind ourselves that opting for English rather than the target language means we're taking the easy way out and patronizing our students, not helping them. Rationalizing to say we're just trying to make things clearer for our students is understandable, but in truth, we're depriving them of opportunities to stretch and grow and develop their competence in a 2nd language. They're not afraid of taking chances in the target language so there's no good reason for us to regularly turn to English just to cover some point faster.