Kids, Language & Brains


“Embracing English, Keeping Spanish”

This blog was inspired in part by an article of the same title in the Chicago Tribune (4/1/2007).  In the past, new immigrants to the USA deeply wished to speak/know English well, even though that often meant distancing themselves entirely from their former language. Assimilation, once unchallenged, has come under fire because of the sacrifices it has demanded.  Now we're much more tuned into the value of remaining bilingual.   Today we see an emphasis on diversity that celebrates both the native language and the culture with the hope of keeping them viable despite relocation to the USA.  The latest census reports say more children are growing up bilingual than ever before. This is a positive for all of us because it serves to enrich our culture.  At the same time, it is fair to ask if putting so much emphasis on maintaining the native language may come at the cost of becoming truly fluent in English?  The Tribune article, reported by Jane Meredith Adams, talks of women now trying to master English with all its irregularities after having lived in the USA for many decades. Because immigrant women are often home-bound, they have fewer opportunities to learn to speak English.  They can make themselves understood but know they often make mistakes, mistakes which hold them back when competence in English is called for. They deserve much praise for their determination to master English.  For despite what many English speakers may believe, the USA is not on the path to becoming a dual-language nation.  In fact, research tells quite a different story. Immigrants' transition to English is happening at the same rate or possibly even faster than it did in previous eras. Typically the transition from mother tongue to English has been a three-generation process. While immigrant children speak the mother tongue at home and English at school, they prefer to speak English. What's different today is that more second and third-generation descendants are retaining some fluency in their mother tongue, particularly Spanish.  Yet according to a 2006 study published by Ruben Rumbaut, professor of sociology at the U. of California/Irvine, 75% of second generation descendants and 95% of third generation descendants choose to speak English at home.  Rumbaut laments that this country continues to be a language graveyard.  No other country in the world has absorbed as many languages as the USA.  If we grant that assimilation retains its power, such an outcome is understandable given the reach of English around the world, especially in economic terms. Young people, from Central and South America to Africa and Asia recognize the value of becoming fluent in English. Our hope is that parents who speak another tongue will see the wisdom of continuing to speak that language with their children. The Language Quest motto:  every child deserves to be bilingual.



Enter Mindfulness 2

Applying mindfulness insights to education is focused on how the practice of meditation changes the brain.  Because of meditation's ability to influence both attention and emotion, it provides a key to learning to maintain attention in the face of distractions and learning to gain control of emotional impulses.  Michael Posner, prof. emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon, says that while waiting for the long-term benefits to be sorted out, even short-term effects of well-timed mindfulness-based interventions--such as stress reduction--can be useful. Because young brains are more plastic as they undergo rapid development, they are also more sensitive to environmental influences, good or bad.  Teaching kids to better manage stress may help them in school now and throughout their adult lives.  This neural efficiency pays off in many ways, one of which is better cognitive control which translates into things like staying on task and regulating emotional responses--the same behaviors that mindfulness practice improves.   Using an MRI technique known as Diffusion Tensor Imagining (DTI), scientists can measure the efficiency of white matter tracts in healthy brains with sufficient myelin coating to shuttle brain signals efficiently along their  circuits.  Posner and his team have shown that meditation alters the white matter tracts all around the anterior cingulate, and they are now trying to understand the mechanism by which meditation "trains" attention and emotion regulation.  Taking the behavioral observation of increased attentiveness following mindfulness training and tracing it backwards helps explain why there is so much interest in teaching children mindfulness.  The potential is huge for positively impacting the neural circuitry of attention and emotion regulation systems at an age when the brain is highly plastic and behavioral habits (good or bad) can strongly influence its "wiring-up."  As Prof. Richard Davidson says, the intention of this work is that kids will learn simple practices that will become lifelong habits.  5/31/2016.


Enter Mindfulness 1

Mindfulness meditation is becoming all the rage and for good reason.  What was originally perceived as an exotic import from the East is now being recognized as a fundamental insight into how the brain/mind work, information useful for all of us, adults and children alike.  The idea that such a seemingly simple practice as mindful breathing--the method essentially boils down to sitting still, focusing on the present moment, and bringing attention to the breath--can alter the structure of the brain and also improve physical and mental health has caught the attention of researchers right along with the public.  It will take longitudinal studies to provide more understanding here, but it's already evident meditation does cause changes in the brain. With more study, the potential for applying mindfulness practices to solving real-life problems in schools, homes and workplaces will become clearer. Richard Davidson, director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been leading research into mindfulness meditation for a good while now, but he emphasizes that much needed long-term studies with multi year followups are not yet available.   According to Davidson's neuroscience perspective, meditation broadly influences two major brain systems, attention and emotion.  How meditation affects the connectivity among brain regions may be due to the alterations it stimulates in the circuits regulating both attention and emotion. Mounting evidence suggests the better the connectivity in a given brain circuit, the more efficient the circuit. Mindful_Brain/ 5/31/16.