Kids, Language & Brains


Cursive Gets Its Due

Although printing seems to have become the guided choice for most youngsters, learning and using cursive is getting the attention it deserves.  Why is cursive important?  Researchers have found that writing by hand helps children learn letters and shapes, improves idea composition and expression, and develops fine motor-skills. Even adults learn faster when they practice writing the characters they are studying in graphically or symbolically different systems such as Mandarin, math, music and chemistry.  And cursive may be an ideal cognitive exercise for life-long learners aiming to keep their minds sharp.  The unique relationship between the hand and the brain is apparent through brain scanning technology which shows there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things we see all the time. WSJ, "How Handwriting Trains the Brain," 10/05/2010.


Old News Is Still Good News

Gray Matters:  The Developing Brain (1995), an audio recording narrated by Judy Woodruff, remains a valuable source on brain research and a mine of information on children's capacities to acquire 2nd languages. Key points:  The window of opportunity, a developmental window, is the period when a child's brain can easily restructure itself.  This window closes to a large extent at puberty. Lifelong skills can be developed by young brains during this critical period. Children are natural language learners; and they can acquire any number of 2nd languages, signed and spoken, even learning more than one language at a time. Brain science makes clear why delaying exposure to 2nd languages until high school works against children's natural abilities.  Unused neurons get pruned away and older 2nd language learners have to work a lot harder to achieve good results in their 2nd language of choice.  Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. 


What Baby Talk Really Means

In a follow-up interview regarding the book she co-authored with Kenn Appel, Beyond Baby Talk:  From Sounds to Sentences--A Parent's Complete Guide to Language Development," Julie Masterson answered questions about how children develop (rather than learn) language. Her points are also relevant to how children develop a 2nd language. Children develop language naturally.  It's something they don't have to be taught.  They pick up language by hearing it used at a time when their interest is awakened.  The best way to acquire language is to interact, because language is more than just words, sounds, sentences.  There are rules for interactions--expectations regarding how you start a conversation, how you participate, establish eye contact, etc.  For her, evaluating parent [or teacher] models is based on the quality of the interaction, not the quantity.  J. Trestrail, Chicago Tribune, 9/30/01.


How the Brain Stores Language and Why Early Learning Matters

Imaging techniques with functional MRI have lead to much better understanding about where speech functions are located in the brain.  They show that nouns are stored separately from verbs and spoken languages are stored separately from written ones. Imaging the brain at work reveals that the capacity to speak a 2nd language is stored in different places in the brain depending on when in life a person becomes bilingual.  Young children who learn a 2nd language along with their native tongue store the first and second languages in the same sector of their brains.  For those who learn a 2nd language later however, the brain designates a separate area for processing it. While no exact point in time when this separation occurs is stipulated, children who learn a 2nd language prior to puberty do so with far less effort and exposure.  Some argue that native proficiency can't be acquired unless learning takes place before puberty.  Given the brain's plasticity, this view is probably too limited, but it does suggest that 2nd language learning requires a much bigger investment of time and energy for older learners.  How Language Is Stored in the Brain Depends on Age, Wall Street Journal 7/10/97.