Kids, Language & Brains


English, Everyone?

In an earlier post here talking about "Language: the Unity Factor" (5/07/2016), it was surprising to learn educated young Tanzanians were resisting government and educational leaders who wanted them to adopt Swahili as the lingua franca of Africa. They aren't buying it. Instead, they want to learn English.  To their way of thinking, the path to success requires them to have a good working knowledge of English. For them, especially in a country/on a continent with so many tribal languages, it seems quite natural for English to become the language for everyone in Africa to unite behind. They are not alone in seeing the value of learning English over other languages. The headline of a BBC report, "Universities compete by teaching English," speaks volumes. The report goes on to say the rise of universities teaching in English, rather than in their own local language, has become a global phenomenon. According to the same report, almost 8,000 courses are being taught in English in leading universities in non-English speaking countries.  Five million international students travel abroad each year to study in countries where English is often the teaching language. Students opting to stay home for their education want the same opportunities. Although Europe appears to be leading the trend toward awarding degrees with English as the key language, China, Taiwan, Japan and Thailand are also following this pattern.  Given the amount of cultural knowledge that is conveyed through languages, it is reasonable to decry this preference for English.  At the same time, competition from Mandarin Chinese is a growing reality, especially in Africa.  It seems English-speakers, native and non-native, are in a race to see which language, English or Mandarin, will be the dominant world language in the years ahead.   Nic Mitchell, BBC News/Business, February 3, 2016.


The Value of Overlearning

In the usual situation in which you stop training on a new skill immediately after you've mastered it, the area of the brain related to the skill remains plastic, still in a ready-to-learn state. Imagine that you now have the choice of training on another new if similar skill or of continuing to train on the first skill beyond the point of mastery.  If you want to maintain that first skill, you need to choose the second option.  Why?  Because the brain is so adept at learning new tasks that if you train on a second similar task while your brain is still in a plastic state, it appears the first skill will be overwritten. In this study, Takeo Watanabe, professor of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University, one of its authors, focuses on the brain's flexibility and its ability to learn.   He found that overlearning causes the amount of glutamate in the brain to diminish, and it is this chemical that keeps the brain plastic, primed for learning.  At the same time, GABA, a chemical that stabilizes the brain, increases with overlearning.  This information is important for teachers who need to understand the value of establishing a good foundation on a basic topic before moving on to more complex but related elements of that topic.   Robert Goldstone, distinguished professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University and not part of this study, urges discernment when deciding for or against overlearning.  He agrees overlearning has its benefits, but he cautions overlearning by itself is not enough; other learning techniques are also needed for reinforcement.  Kendra Pierre-Louis, Brain in the News, March 2017.


Understanding the Emotional Style of Your Brain

Emotion works with cognition in an integrated and seamless way to enable us to navigate the world of relationships, work and spiritual growth.  So says neuroscientist Richard Davidson in the book he wrote along with former Wall Street Journal science writer, Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain.  Thanks to the new understanding of how the brain can change in form and function over time due to its neuroplasticity, we now know it's not only life experiences that can cause the brain to change.  Changes also come about as a result of our own mental activity. Davidson makes the case we can reprogram our brains to help shed negativity and lead better and more productive lives.  He contends this new kind of research holds significant implications for the treatment of mental illness, attention deficit disorders and autism.  Dr. Davidson believes individuals can make changes on their own, outgrowing an emotional style used into adulthood to opt for one that describes them more accurately.  He identifies the six dimensions of our emotional style as resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context and attention. Because we score so differently when measured by these six dimensions, even falling on different parts of each scale, it becomes easier to understand our varied reactions to what life throws at us. Meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction are the secular forms of behavioral therapy he values because they allow the observer to look at thoughts and feelings from the perspective of a nonjudgmental third party.  Laura Landro, Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2012.


Counteracting the Brain’s Preference for the Path of Least Resistance

Isn't it rather troubling to learn that when we hear someone speak with a foreign accent, our natural tendency is to find the speaker and what the speaker is saying less than reliable? Some will simply refuse to listen in such cases. Others may not give up so easily as they smile patronizingly at the "incompetent" trying to convey information. Fortunately there are others who will slow down, take out the mental ear plugs and really listen to what is being said.  The further from native-sounding an accent is, the harder we have to work, and the less trustworthy we perceive the information to be.   So, what might clearly be labeled as prejudice or bias is really our lazy brain opting for the easier path. As a result, our brain ends up doubting the truthfulness of what the speaker with a non-native accent is saying.  In fact, researchers found the heavier the accent, the more skeptical the study participants became. Watching movies where the cast is speaking English even if it's the English of Great Britain, Australia or India, is an opportunity for us to tune our ears up and force our brains to make the extra effort for understanding.  This choice is the equivalent of stretching or growing, worthy options to embrace. Although it's frustrating to know our brains react in such a predictable fashion, the good news is that once we become aware of why our brains are resisting, we can and do develop workarounds with some success.  Unfortunately this isn't so much the case with heavier accents. Shiri Lev-Ari and Booz Keysar, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, November 2010.