A recent New York Times piece reported on research regarding the effects of bilingual environments on the language development of children. It was quite fascinating, although will doubtless add to the number of families enrolling their fetuses in prenatal Mandarin classes.
The research showed that infants and babies raised in bilingual environments retain a capacity for language discrimination and facility that those raised in monolingual environments do not retain. Other studies show that babies from bilingual environments demonstrate other cognitive strengths when compared to their monolingual peers.
As summarized in the Times article:
Over the past decade, Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, has shown that bilingual children develop crucial skills in addition to their double vocabularies, learning different ways to solve logic problems or to handle multitasking, skills that are often considered part of the brain's so-called executive function. These higher-level cognitive abilities are localized to the frontal and prefrontal cortex in the brain. 'Overwhelmingly, children who are bilingual from early on have precocious development of executive function,' Dr. Bialystok said.
This research runs directly counter to earlier fears that bilingual environments might be cognitively confusing, thereby inhibiting intellectual or academic growth. In today's toxic political environment, particularly in matters of immigration, multiculturalism and growing poverty in Hispanic neighborhoods, here's at least one piece of good news for families who are treated like outsiders in too many communities. Perhaps they'll have the (much deserved) last laugh.
But before rushing out to enroll your children in German or Spanish class, consider that the above points are not the most interesting part of this research. The kicker comes at the end of the article.
Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, describes an imaging device used in the research. She hopes the machine will help explore the question of why babies learn language from people, but not from screens.
The Times report concludes:
Previous research by her group showed that exposing English-language infants in Seattle to someone speaking to them in Mandarin helped those babies preserve the ability to discriminate Chinese language sounds, but when the same 'dose' of Mandarin was delivered by a television program or an audiotape, the babies learned nothing. 'This special mapping that babies seem to do with language happens in a social setting,' Dr. Kuhl said. 'They need to be face to face, interacting with other people. The brain is turned on in a unique way.'
Here is a narrow window into an important dimension of learning that is shoved aside in the babble about testing, accountability, online education, scalability, etc.
Learning is primarily a social activity, best nurtured through and among relationships. The rote, unimaginative practices that characterize much of today's approach to learning are deeply flawed. There is no school environment more suffocating than a classroom with neatly dressed children sitting quietly (well-behaved is so very important!) and receiving the wisdom being dispensed by an authority figure or, worse, by an authoritative electronic device. Yet that is what too many schools are striving for.
American education is having a love affair with technology. Schools, parents and policy makers speak glowingly of classrooms filled with students at their IPads and MacBooks. The late Steve Jobs is worshiped as though his clever devices have changed the world. Perhaps they have, but not for the better. I know I am in the distinct minority, but I believe children would be far better served in schools with no digital devices than in schools that place heavy emphasis on digital devices. Electronic devices are effective tools. I'm writing on one, posting my blog on one and I did the research for this piece on a different one. But I didn't learn anything from any of them.
Relationships, negotiation, arguing, breathing, feeling, hearing, reading the emotion on a face -- all of these analog experiences are the stuff of real life and real learning. The symbolic, digital representation of life is not life.
As we bring more and more technology into classrooms, living rooms and bedrooms, this little bit of tantalizing research hints at how very, very wrong we may be.