Kids, Language & Brains


Building Cognitive Reserves

Becoming bilingual is no magic potion capable of blocking the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's, but it does give the brain more time to function well. Scientists, who for years studied children, found that speaking more than one language takes a lot of mental work. Being bilingual at an early age can mean slightly smaller vocabularies and slowed abilities on verbal tasks; but that isn't the full picture.  Over time, regularly speaking more than one language appears to strengthen skills that boost the brain's so-called cognitive reserve, benefitting bilingual people as they age.  One brain function that seems to profit from bilingualism is known as inhibitory or cognitive control.  It allows bilingual speakers to selectively pay attention, to focus on one thing rather than another, to turn off one language to function in another.   This is what happens when they switch from one language to another and it's a skill that carries over.  It's too early to say how often the 2nd language must be used to maintain this skill, and it's not yet clear if becoming fluent in a 2nd language later in life will have the same effect.  Researchers in several different studies comparing monolingual and bilingual adults between 30 and 80 years of age, saw better performance blocking out distractions and better cognitive control recognizing correct grammar in test sentences by bilingual subjects.  This second advantage was even more pronounced in the older subjects.  Closer examination of records of memory patients results show that although bilingualism does not actually delay the brain's deterioration, bilingual individuals were better able to handle the memory deficits of old age. Shirley S. Wang, Wall Street Journal, 10/12/10.



Through Children’s Brains Via Language 3

From birth to about 12 years of age, children are endowed with brains that readily focus on language, so it is no mystery why the movement to introduce 2nd language study at much earlier learning stages in children's lives has become such a worthy cause.  Children who start 2nd language learning before the age of 12 or so, can acquire wonderful accents (mastery of the sound system) in 2nd languages as well as speak with far greater facility and confidence than their high school-aged siblings who really have to be willing to work hard to achieve even rudimentary 2nd language fluency.  Once in place and then maintained, the 2nd languages begun by children well before high school are superbly positioned to continue developing in high school and beyond.  More and more, high school teachers will meet their incoming students with the expectation they will be at ease in their 2nd languages as their siblings were not and as most adults who began studying 2nd language in high school never became. Imagine the difference!  This is the new world of 2nd language education and it puts pressure on all levels of 2nd language education to produce teachers able to meet and challenge these students where they are.


Through Children’s Brains Via Language 2

While the brain is no blank slate, even at infancy, it is subject to its genetic make-up but only in a rather flexible way.  Genes--keepers of our DNA--can't act unless circumstances provoke them.  And this means we can intervene and influence outcomes far more than we might have imagined in the past. This makes genes the ultimate tools of interactivity.  As one scientist says, no matter how hard-wired a trait may seem, there is always give and take between what's inside and what's outside.  The back and forth between genes and the environment is a constant to acknowledge and learn from.  Knowing the human brain's capacity to adapt, we can now recognize the nature vs. nurture argument as far too simplistic.


Through Children’s Brains Via Language I

Children's affinity for language grows out of their innate ability to absorb language naturally, without even trying.  According to the research, young infants respond to language at a level of sophistication we might hardly expect of them.  Yet, sensitivity to both vocabulary and grammar, in this case, words in sentences, is part of an infant's potential repertoire.  Use of fMRI imaging has shown the infant brain activates in many of the same areas as the adult brain in similar testing.  This strongly suggests that even in the first months of life, the brains of babies are already beginning to process language.  Such research supports the argument that language development in pre-born babies' brain is well underway and babies at birth are already beyond being mere "blank slates" upon which all future brain development will be written. Babies begin receiving, that is, making synaptic connections between neurons, even before birth.  During the latter part of gestation, the hair cells in their ears are already working and processing sounds.  With birth comes the explosive growth of synapses based on babies' encounters with actual experiences.  No wonder parents today are strongly encouraged to talk to babies and young children as much as possible.  These "wake up calls"--gaining even fuller intensity by pairing auditory with visual stimuli--solicit the brain to move into action and develop its truly redoubtable ability to learn.


Trapped in Failure Factories

Power games that allow for the justification of bad outcomes for others while maintaining the edge for their own come at a very high price.  For as long as the boy or girl entering American public education doesn't leave with the same shot at the American Dream as his or her peers, the price paid is calamitous for those kids, for our society now and for generations to come. According to one study, just closing the gap between our educational performance and that of other countries such as Finland and South Korea would increase our GDP considerably. Compound that gain over time and it's clear why a good education for all has to be a high priority.  While only 15 % of our big-city schools fit the description of "Failure Factories,"  these same schools account for the massive majority of our drop-outs. Throwing more money at the problem won't solve it. And yet, it's a problem we must solve because the cost of no solution condemns our society to second-class status. When we allow the children of other people to fail or leave school without an education, those children...become adults who cannot provide for themselves.  Our children, their children and their children's children will live to pay the price for such short-sightedness. Rupert Murdoch, Wall Street Journal, 10/8/2010.