6 Potential Brain Benefits Of Bilingual Education : NPR

What the latest science and studies show:

So what does recent research say about the potential benefits of bilingual education? NPR Ed called up seven researchers in three countries — Sorace, Bialystok, Luk, Kroll, Jennifer Steele, and the team of Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier — to find out.

Attention

It turns out that, in many ways, the real trick to speaking two languages consists in managing not to speak one of those languages at a given moment — which is fundamentally a feat of paying attention.

Saying “Goodbye” to mom and then “Guten tag” to your teacher, or managing to ask for a crayola roja instead of a red crayon, requires skills called “inhibition” and “task switching.” These skills are subsets of an ability called executive function.

People who speak two languages often outperform monolinguals on general measures of executive function. “[Bilinguals] can pay focused attention without being distracted and also improve in the ability to switch from one task to another,” says Sorace.

Do these same advantages accrue to a child who begins learning a second language in kindergarten instead of as a baby? We don’t yet know. Patterns of language learning and language use are complex. But Gigi Luk at Harvard cites at least one brain-imaging study on adolescents that shows similar changes in brain structure when compared with those who are bilingual from birth, even when they didn’t begin practicing a second language in earnest before late childhood.

Empathy

Young children being raised bilingual have to follow social cues to figure out which language to use with which person and in what setting. As a result, says Sorace, bilingual children as young as age 3 have demonstrated a head start on tests of perspective-taking and theory of mind — both of which are fundamental social and emotional skills.

Reading (English)

About 10 percent of students in the Portland, Ore., public schools are assigned by lottery to dual-language classrooms that offer instruction in Spanish, Japanese or Mandarin, alongside English.

Jennifer Steele at American University conducted a four-year, randomized trialand found that these dual-language students outperformed their peers in English-reading skills by a full school year’s worth of learning by the end of middle school.

Such a large effect in a study this size is unusual, and Steele is currently conducting a flurry of follow-up studies to tease out the causality: Is this about a special program that attracted families who were more engaged? Or about the dual-language instruction itself?

“If it’s just about moving the kids around,” Steele says, “that’s not as exciting as if it’s a way of teaching that makes you smarter.”

Steele suspects the latter. Because the effects are found in reading, not in math or science where there were few differences, she suggests that learning two languages makes students more aware of how language works in general, aka “metalinguistic awareness.”

The research of Gigi Luk at Harvard offers a slightly different explanation. She has recently done a small study looking at a group of 100 fourth-graders in Massachusetts who had similar reading scores on a standard test, but very different language experiences.

Some were foreign-language dominant and others were English natives. Here’s what’s interesting. The students who were dominant in a foreign language weren’t yet comfortably bilingual; they were just starting to learn English. Therefore, by definition, they had much weaker English vocabularies than the native speakers.

Yet they were just as good at decoding a text.

“This is very surprising,” Luk says. “You would expect the reading comprehension performance to mirror vocabulary — it’s a cornerstone of comprehension.”

How did the foreign-language dominant speakers manage this feat? Well, Luk found, they also scored higher on tests of executive functioning. So, even though they didn’t have huge mental dictionaries to draw on, they may have been great puzzle-solvers, taking into account higher-level concepts such as whether a single sentence made sense within an overall story line.

They got to the same results as the monolinguals, by a different path.

Source: 6 Potential Brain Benefits Of Bilingual Education : NPR Ed : NPR

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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