Kids, Language & Brains


How Kids Learn

Brain researchers at the University of Washington are at the forefront when it comes to illuminating what's going on in young children's brains as they learn to speak, listen, read and write.  Although the brain isn't naturally wired for reading and writing, early childhood experiences combine with genetics to create sophisticated networks that will support future learning.  For the first five years of their lives, children's brains exhibit extraordinary flexibility which primes them for learning about their world.  This capacity lasts across the life span but with lessened intensity. Patricia Kuhl, codirector of UW's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, found that six-month olds, already tuned into subtle differences in their mother tongue between words like "pat" and "bat," are displaying skills that will correspond to future speaking and reading success.  What Kuhn discovered is that babies already have the ability to focus in on the sounds of their native language, retaining what is relevant and discarding what isn't.  How do babies learn this kind of discrimination?  They do it through their parents' directing attention to what's important with lots of warm, loving, face-to-face talk that uses the kind of singsong voice that dips and rises and stretches out vowel sounds.  This pattern is further reinforced as parents read to their children, ask open-ended questions, and practice serve-and-return conversations that build vocabulary and basic knowledge about the world.            John Higgins, Brain in the News, Nov. 2014.


We Are Our Signaling Pathways

Such is the conclusion of Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard who turned 90 last year.  As active as ever doing research and writing with an unwavering focus, he says we can't dissociate ourselves from our signaling pathways.  Cells work by their signaling pathways, whatever kind of cell they are. Information travels along these pathways to receptors. These pathways, evolved within the cells, tell us what to do.  With knowledge of these pathways it is now possible to determine their chemical steps and so create targets for drug development that hold amazing hope for people suffering from schizophrenia, Parkinson's, depression, and even Alzheimer's.  What's exciting about this hope is that it doesn't come loaded with dangerous side-effects, like toxicity.  Talking about his own career path doing both basic research and then applied research, Greengard is quick to say doing both has given him a lot of gratification.  Asked if he isn't inclined to ease off, he's quick to say he loves what he does and really enjoys working with his younger collaborators.  Given the progress being made in this field, he is eager to keep going because of the exciting questions and answers available now that weren't available 30 years ago.   Brain in the News, Jan/Feb 2016. pp.4-6.


New York’s COS: Children’s Orchestra Society

Dr. Hiao-Tsiun Ma founded New York's COS in 1962 to teach American children the value of discipline.  A native of China with a doctorate in musicology from the Sorbonne, he was a student of the violin and composition at the Paris Conservatoire.  More familiarly, he was the father of violin prodigy and later developmental pediatrician daughter, Yeou-Cheng Ma, and her brother, cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It lay dormant  for seven years until Yeou-Cheng Ma and her husband, Filipino guitarist and conductor Michael Dadap were able to relaunch it in 1984.   Knowing from her own experience as a musician and children's doctor the important role of music in children's development, like her father before her, she has dedicated her efforts to making music accessible to all children, regardless of income or level of talent.  The only requirement: their desire to learn.  One grateful parent said her children learn that it's hard to get good at anything and  this transfers over to their school work.  They learn patience, team work, and dedication.   Dr. Yeou-Chang Ma believes it is very important for children to know their teachers believe in them.  Her life experience and that of her brother were influenced by such teachers and this encouraged them to work hard.  She shares her father's approach to tackling something that seems really difficult:  just cut it into four pieces, and if that's hard, cut it into sixteen pieces. Eventually you can conquer it.  Along with the emphasis on putting in the hard work, she gladly encourages childhood playtime, seeing it as the path to helping children remain creative and able to adapt. Another invaluable lesson for children in the COS is the opportunity to work with such great musicians as Jaime Laredo, Sharon Robinson, Emanuel Ax, Sarah Chang, Cho-Liang Lin, Cecile Licad, David Shifrin and even Yo-Yo Ma, when his schedule allows.  Yeou-Chang Ma remembers how lucky she and her brother felt being able to meet such musicians as Pablo Casals, Bernard Greenhouse, and Isaac Stern and the lasting effect of these meetings on their lives. This is New York, 8/2/2014.


Language: The Unity Factor

When Julius Nyerere became premier minister and then first president of the Republic of Tanzania in the 1960's, one of his first steps was to define Swahili as the national language with the intention of overcoming tribal divisions in a country with more than 120 languages. Looking back, a panel of Tanzanian educators and political leaders still differ on many of the language-related issues, but they generally agree on the success of the original decision: Swahili has served to unify the nation and encourage communication among its parts and peoples.  Calling the decision a work of genius and evidence of incredible foresight, the panel generally agreed it spared Tanzania much of the violence that plagued other post-independence African nations. The panel's assessment was that Nyerere, using language as the focus, did everything he could to unite the country. Less positively, they said his determined rejection of tribal elements undermined tribal languages and with them, cultural meanings.  The position of the current government is that today's school children, coming from different tribes but using Swahili as their lingua franca, have developed a sense of being compatriots.   While many language issues remain in contention, these Tanzanian educators and political leaders are eager to see Swahili continue its growth in Tanzania and East Africa, with the hope it may eventually become the African language of choice. That would be a remarkable legacy. BBC Newshour Extra  3/23/16.


Play: A Vital Nutrient for Adults As Well

While Stuart Brown, M.D., certainly wants to emphasize the value of play in children's learning, his fuller mission is to argue for play as a lifelong need that keeps us all growing and embracing life with enthusiasm and intention. The benefits outlined in the preceding blog pertain to us with variations due to our differing ages and awareness.  Seeing play as a catalyst rather than a constant need, he credits play with being responsible for our happiness, our ability to sustain relationships and our capacity to be creative. As far as Brown is concerned, without play we'd have no art, games, books, movies, etc., all the elements of civilization.  He characterizes play as the vital essence of life; what makes life lively.  He argues that nations which remain economically strong are those that can create intellectual property, something he attributes to the capacity to innovate which comes largely out of the ability to play.  Even if play seems to be the realm of children, our own inclinations to play are there to be reactivated.  To start, reexamine your play history--from childhood on; expose yourself to play; give yourself permission to play, to be a beginner; play can be fun but that isn't always what you're seeking; be active--motion is perhaps the most basic form of play; don't be afraid to play; nourish the kind of play that suits you so you always stay play-nourished.  Brown founded the National Institute for Play after living the life of a workaholic doctor, psychiatrist, clinical researcher. He realized something was missing from life and he went looking for it!