Posts Tagged ‘Multilingual Advantages’

Video Extras Offer More Food for Thought About Immersion Education

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

As a writer I know that plenty of what comes out of my pen (or keyboard) never sees the light of day. Sometimes I have to cut entire paragraphs or pages–even ones I really like–simply because they don’t serve the overall purpose of the story or article. In my case these get relegated to a file called “leftovers” and spend purgatory in my computer hoping to be called up another day. Sadly, I don’t think that day has come for any of my leftovers, but I still can’t bear to throw them away.

When people make a film, a similar thing happens, but on a much grander scale. Filmmakers spend hundreds of hours and many more dollars scouting locations, receiving permission, employing a crew, hiring equipment, and setting up lighting and sound gear to shoot many hours of footage, comparatively few minutes of which make it into the final version of their films. Those hours in the editing room letting go of great stuff that just won’t fit or that has to be sacrificed so other points can be made must be much more painful than my cutting and pasting into a ‘leftover’ file because that work represents so much effort and energy from so many people.

Fortunately, we now have the Internet, and some of those great scenes can now be seen and shared. Material that didn’t make the cut or caused the story to stray can now enhance viewers’ experience of the finished product–just like dvd extras do.  Speaking in Tongues filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider have recently posted ten of these video extras on the Speaking in Tongues site.  (Make sure to use the scroll bar on the right of the screen so you can watch them all.)

The extras run the gamut from Mimi Met, Senior Research Associate at the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland, discussing the importance of multilingualism in creating a more peaceful world to educator Laura Ringard expanding on the value of bilingualism for enhancing cognitive function. A Mandarin immersion kindergarten class joyfully sings a children’s song with their teacher, and a 3rd grade science class measures and discusses the progress of plants in their garden entirely in Cantonese. The extras also delve into more controversial topics such as the lag in standardized test scores of immersion students who are taught in the target language but tested in English before they have received as much instruction in that language as their monolingual peers. A touching episode on integration and immersion features a Spanish-speaking mother who decides to enroll her daughter in a Mandarin immersion program as well as insight from an African American mother and a school employee about how learning a second language can open new opportunities for children.

I hope you have a look and that these extras help answer some questions that Speaking in Tongues may have raised for you.  Spread the word to family and friends and let us know what you think about these videos in the comment section below.

And just for fun, check out this excellent audio extra in the form of a World in Words podcast from Public Radio International’s The World and Patrick Cox.  Cox devotes about half the show to Speaking in Tongues, interviewing Ken and Marcia as well as their younger son Jaden, who points out that it’s useful for he and his brother to be able to communicate in a language their parents can’t understand.  No doubt that’s true!

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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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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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