Kids, Language & Brains


The Brain: Sorting Sounds to Make Language

Something linguists have suspected for decades, that the brain organizes sounds according to broad groupings based on phonetic features, that is, how sounds are formed in the mouth--fricatives: S/Z, plosives: B/P and other descriptors--has now been confirmed by a group of neuroscientists at UCSF.  For more than a century, scientists have known that one small part of the brain, Wernicke's area, located in a region called the superior temporal gyrus, plays a critical role in how humans process language.  But without the right tools to study the brain in real time, something they now can do, it was not possible to explain how the brain responded to split-second sounds.  Finding that the brain immediately filters language sounds into broad groupings, the research team led by Dr. Edward Chang determined that small neighborhoods of neurons were activated at certain sounds.  Based on this information, these scientists were able to build brain maps of these neighborhoods proving that certain neurons light up each time patients hear a specific type of vowel or consonant.  UC Berkeley linguists also participated in the study.  This new work offers physiological evidence in support of an old linguistic assumption:  phonetic feature are the foundation of language comprehension.  Chang predicted their work could someday help doctors and linguists better understand language disorders and problems like dyslexia, and might even help people improve their ability to learn a second language.  Find journalist Erin Allday's article at   February, 2014.


Language Matters

"Language Matters," the name of a 2014 PBS special put together by American poet Bob Holman, this insightful film starts with the premise that of the 6000 languages still alive in the world today, at the current rate, one will become extinct every two weeks.  And when a language is lost, it is lost forever.  So, in the not too distant future we will have only 3000 languages to help us understand ourselves and our neighbors in this globalized world.  That will be much more than unfortunate.  Starting with Aboriginal languages in Australia, moving on to Welsh language in Wales and finishing up with Hawaiian language in Hawaii, we recognize the centrality of language as culture and understand why preserving threatened languages is so important. One conclusion that resonates:  if keeping language alive is the mission, starting with young children in immersion situations is essential.  For if young children don't learn to speak the language, the language will not grow and thrive.  In Hawaii, native Hawaiian parents are thrilled to say their children are the teachers and they themselves, who grew up speaking only English, are the proud students.  Check out this PBS special.  Deeply thought provoking, it's well worth the almost two hours viewing time.


Joan Beck: Grand Old Dame 2

In her Chicago Tribune  column of 7/17/1967, "Why Johnny can't speak a foreign language, " Joan Beck captured our attention with the story of well-educated immigrant parents struggling to master English while their 5-year-old picks it up effortlessly.   Over this country's long history of receiving non-English speaking immigrants, it's been obvious their young children learn English better and faster. If these children maintain their mother tongue at home and speak English everywhere else, they'll be comfortably bilingual for the rest of their lives. Beck aimed a judgment at the educational establishment which continues resisting FL programs for young children in the name of economic realities and maintaining the status quo.  Current research fully acknowledges the plasticity of the adolescent brain, but learning correct pronunciation, being able to sound/speak like a native, and storing the 2nd language(s) right next to the mother tongue for fastest access are skills only younger learners excel at.   Just ask anyone who began studying a 2nd language in high school if they've continued it in a serious manner (junior year abroad, working abroad, working here for a foreign company and using its language proficiently).  The answer will more than likely be an embarrassed "no." Beck's challenge to the educational establishment still rings true.  Fortunately there are programs that work for young children.  Teacher-centered rather than book, video or DVD-centered,  they require a native or near-native speaker/teacher to accomplish with a small group what these children have always been fully capable of: acquiring additional languages with ease. Early childhood is the window of opportunity for them!



Joan Beck: Grand Old Dame 1

Longtime staff writer and columnist at the Chicago Tribune as well as the first woman to sit on the paper's editorial board, Joan Beck often explored issues not yet raised in the mind of her public.  For example, she was one of the first journalists to write extensively and persuasively on the importance of early education for the developing brains of young children.  Her very readable, How to Raise a Brighter Child (1967), has been translated into eight languages and is in its 18th printing.  Known for doing her homework, Mrs. Beck always reached out for evidence over social judgment.  Rigorous scientific exploration and discussion gave her columns much admired heft. She seemed to hold a special place in her thoughts for 2nd languages and 2nd language speakers.  She helped make us all more aware of how important it is to be open to the richness of other languages and cultures.


Reshaping the Brain for a Better Future

Thanks to the ever increasing use of high tech imaging, the child's brain is being studied as never before.  Evidence linking early experience to major biological changes in the brain has only been available with the use of such high tech imagining.  What scientists have learned is that the brain is not hard-wired, and that significant change is possible in the developing brain. Harry Chugani, Chief, Pediatric Neurology and Director, Children's Hospital of Michigan, sees this awareness as modern science's Pygmalion moment. With the right kinds of intervention, you can completely change the way a person will turn out.  Dr. Chugani is among those who increasingly view early and ongoing experience in second languages, math, and music as highly desirable.  Young children learn easier and faster and these valuable learning years are often wasted due to lack of input.  Chicago Tribune 4/15/93