Archive for the ‘Critical Thinking’ Category

Ways of Speaking, Ways of Thinking

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

It has always seemed to me that once we start thinking in words, the shape of those words becomes the shape of our thoughts. More accurately, it is the language itself—how those words are put together and what they can convey—that shape our thinking. Following from this, it makes sense that different languages lend themselves more or less easily to different ways of thinking.

Stanford Psychologist Lera Boroditsky explores this very theory in a recent Wall Street Journal article, asserting that language itself influences culture. She backs up this theory with anecdotes from research, and her examples are fascinating.  What I find almost more interesting, however, is that many linguists have disregarded this theory, sometimes referred to as linguistic determinism, (though many believe that language’s effect on thought exists more on a continuum, which seems reasonable) for the last 40 or 50 years. None other than celebrated linguist Noam Chomsky asserts that all languages have a “universal grammar” and that each is, more or less, equal to the tasks for which human beings have created and used language. But decades of research, according to Boroditsky, have debunked this idea, and people are beginning to study, instead, just how language shapes the culture that creates it or, if you will, the culture it creates.

In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell compares the counting system of English to that shared by certain Asian languages including Chinese, Japanese and Korean. The Asian system is very regular and consistent: what we know in English as twelve translates literally into Mandarin as ten-two. Thirteen is “ten-three” and so on. Twenty-two is “two tens-two”—the value is inherent in the way the number is stated. When we say “twenty-two” in English our minds actually have to translate that word into the number value associated with it, and, although we soon come to do this with ease, our brains must still take an extra step to internalize the number value.

Is it any wonder that Asian children consistently outperform their peers in the U.S., France, Germany, England and other Western industrialized nations on mathematics exams? Of course one can argue that factors beyond language influence the scores, but the discrepancy, as reported in US News & World Report is so dramatic, and the language studies so compelling, it is hard to deny that the math engines built into these languages facilitate math learning to some extent.

Many of us have had the beautiful experience of learning an untranslatable word from a friend who speaks another language. Once we are able to get our heads around the concept signified by this foreign word—a concept our own language and culture has not formally recognized with language—we are thrilled. We haven’t simply learned a new word, we’ve learned something new and even somewhat mysterious (it can’t be translated after all) about the people who use that word.

My personal favorite, the Portuguese word saudade, can be described as something akin to the English word nostalgia, but without the gloppy sentimentality or, if I understand it right, quite the same flavor of melancholy. While saudade does convey longing for a past that can never return (as well as a future that will never happen or a present that is not turning out as one had hoped), acceptance of this reality is somehow built into the word. Saudade embodies all that is positive of a time or feeling that is no longer, while also deeply acknowledging the sadness of this truth. It can be found all over grave markers in Brazil, (and probably Portugal, too, but I’ve never walked through a Portuguese cemetery, so I don’t know). Brazilians even have an official day devoted to commemorating saudade (January 30). It’s hard to deny that this untranslatable word has an influence on the culture.

One day after school last spring, my son’s teacher sent him off with a string of Chinese that, by nature of the delivery, seemed important and meaningful.

“What did she say?” I asked my six-year-old.

“I can’t tell you” was his reply.

“You didn’t understand?”

“No, I understood, but I don’t know how to tell you.”

“Is it something you don’t want me to know about?” I pressed.

“No. It’s something good. I just don’t know how to say it in English.”

Perhaps as his abilities in both languages improve, once he learns more about nuance and increases his vocabulary, he can try to make me understand, just as my bilingual Brazilian friends have helped me with saudade. In the meantime, I will enjoy watching him learn how to speak–and to think–in more than one language.

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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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