Archive for the ‘Cognitive Benefits’ Category

How ‘Submersion’ Differs from Immersion

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

When English speaking children enter language immersion programs in this country they typically find that their teacher speaks to them in a language they don’t understand between 50% and 100% of the day. Immersion teachers use a variety of techniques, most notably exaggerated speaking styles and animated body language, to make themselves understood. About half of the class are native English speakers, and it’s not uncommon for students to hear English spoken in the halls by parents, other teachers, and school administrators. English-speaking immersion students know they are learning a second language at school and that their native language dominates everywhere else.

It is common to compare English speaking students’ experience in an immersion program to that of an immigrant thrust into an English-only classroom, but the comparison does not hold up. An immersion teacher’s job is to get the students to understand the language so that they can also teach the content—math, reading, social studies—as effectively as possible. Mainstream teachers were hired and trained to teach content in English, not to teach English as a second language. Whereas my kids’ teachers could make up their own language and effectively use it to teach math concepts, mainstream English teachers teach, by and large, from an assumption of fluency.

When most non-English-speaking immigrant children come to the US and enroll in school, they are simply placed in a mainstream English classroom, and English is spoken all day and everywhere. They may find common language peers in their same situation, and it’s likely those kids will stick together whenever possible rather than integrate with their English-speaking classmates. This type of instruction has been dubbed “submersion” because it is akin to pushing people into water without teaching them to swim.

Unfortunately, submersion instruction happens all over the world and is one of the main reasons heritage languages such as those spoken by Native Americans and minority tribes elsewhere are dying out altogether. Children may eventually become literate in the dominant language, but not in their mother tongue. In fact, depending on circumstances, they may lose their native language altogether, thereby losing ties with their family and culture and never having the benefit of full linguistic proficiency that comes with native fluency.

Of course many talented mainstream English teachers do their best to reach every student (and do so with success) regardless of their own formal training and experience, but even the most sensitive, well-intentioned teacher may fall into habits borne of teaching in an all-English environment. In a monolingual environment, for instance, there is nothing wrong with lecturing with one’s back to the class while writing on the whiteboard, but such practices cannot help ELLs get up to speed either in language or academic subjects. By the time these students get a handle on the dominant language, they are often so far behind in the content that achieving academic proficiency has become a formidable struggle.

Two-way immersion programs, when implemented properly, create bilingual students from distinct native language backgrounds. ELLs do not receive specialized or remedial instruction (unless it is otherwise indicated, in the case of learning disabilities, for example). Both English language instruction and content instruction in English are increased as the students progress, and the dominant language, English, is supported in commerce, the media, and in the community at large. Native English speakers enrolled in immersion do not suffer from a lack of guidance in the use of their mother tongue. Indeed, both ELLs and native English speakers tend to outpace their peers in monolingual programs before middle school.

When children of different language backgrounds are combined in classrooms led by effective, bilingual teachers, multilingual adults with greater cross-cultural understanding and deeper knowledge of most academic subjects are the end product, and these individuals can speak for themselves–in more than one language.

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Multilingualism Offers Benefits to the Brain that go Beyond the Obvious

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

While I personally espouse the obvious benefits of multilingualism, some people just don’t see the point in learning a second language. They have no plans to travel or work outside their home country, and they find memorizing vocabulary and working their way through foreign grammar a mind-numbing waste of time. They also feel that their kids can decide for themselves whether or not to pursue another language when they’re old enough. Some people are certain that even if they do learn to communicate in a second language, they will never use that skill. So why bother?

Well, it turns out that studying foreign languages is a lot like eating your vegetables: it’s good for you, even if you don’t like it (or won’t use it). And, also like the vegetables, the earlier you start, the more beneficial it is.

Researchers are making huge gains in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, and one of the most exciting things they have learned is that, in addition to broadening horizons, increasing job opportunities, and the just plain cool factor of being able to communicate in more than one language, being multilingual offers tremendous benefits to the brain.

Speech and Language Pathologist Robert Kurtz lists the following seven cognitive advantages of bilingualism:

1. better metalinguistic awareness (ability to identify and describe characteristics and features of language);

2. better classification skills;

3. better concept formation;

4. better analogical reasoning;

5. better visual-spatial skills;

6. better storytelling skills;

7. better semantic development.

In a well-cited article for the ERIC Review , Kathleen M. Marcos discusses research suggesting that students who receive second language instruction are more creative and better at solving complex problems than those who do not (Bamford and Mizokawa, 1991). And in an era in which Americans have been shown to be declining in creativity, developing this type of intelligence is essential.

Other studies suggest that persons with full proficiency in more than one language (bilinguals) outperform similar monolingual persons on both verbal and nonverbal (math, critical thinking) tests of intelligence.  In another study, multilingual children of average intelligence learned to read in their native language earlier  than their monolingual peers.

It has long been observed that individuals proficient in a second language generally have an easier time learning subsequent languages.  While such individuals are often regarded as having a talent for languages (which, to some extent, may be the case), the truth is that learning more than one language establishes the brain circuitry for language acquisition, making it easier to learn third fourth and fifth languages as well.

The advantages can play out later in life, too.  For instance, multilingual stroke victims rarely lose ability in all of their languages because these languages are stored in different parts of the brain.  if a stroke hits the language center of a monolingual person, her entire ability to communicate is affected, whereas multilinguals may have damage to an area in which one of their languages is stored but not in another. And as if that weren’t enough, studies on multilingual Alzheimer’s patients indicate that multilingualism can delay the onset of symptoms by as much as five years!

Yet, despite all these benefits, as well as improved performance on standardized tests (even in non-verbal subject areas) and all the obvious advantages, language instruction continuously lands on the chopping block when school districts face tight budget decisions. Perhaps if more decision makers had become multilingual at an early age, enhanced brain function would enable them to recognize that such sacrifices are foolish at best.

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