30 Nov 6 Potential Brain Benefits Of Bilingual Education

November 30, 2016

By: Anya Kamenetz
Source: nprEd

Part of our ongoing series exploring how the U.S. can educate the nearly 5 million students who are learning English.

Brains, brains, brains. One thing we’ve learned at NPR Ed is that people are fascinated by brain research. And yet it can be hard to point to places where our education system is really making use of the latest neuroscience findings.

But there is one happy nexus where research is meeting practice: bilingual education. “In the last 20 years or so, there’s been a virtual explosion of research on bilingualism,” says Judith Kroll, a professor at the University of California, Riverside.

Again and again, researchers have found, “bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime,” in the words of Gigi Luk, an associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

At the same time, one of the hottest trends in public schooling is what’s often called dual-language or two-way immersion programs.

Traditional programs for English-language learners, or ELLs, focus on assimilating students into English as quickly as possible. Dual-language classrooms, by contrast, provide instruction across subjects to both English natives and English learners, in both English and in a target language.

The goal is functional bilingualism and biliteracy for all students by middle school.

New York City, North Carolina, Delaware, Utah, Oregon and Washington state are among the places expanding dual-language classrooms.

The trend flies in the face of some of the culture wars of two decades ago, when advocates insisted on “English first” education. Most famously, California passed Proposition 227 in 1998. It was intended to sharply reduce the amount of time that English-language learners spent in bilingual settings.

Proposition 58, passed by California voters on Nov. 8, largely reversed that decision, paving the way for a huge expansion of bilingual education in the state that has the largest population of English-language learners.

Some of the insistence on English-first was founded in research produced decades ago, in which bilingual students underperformed monolingual English speakers and had lower IQ scores.

Today’s scholars, like Ellen Bialystok at York University in Toronto, now say that research was “deeply flawed.”

“Earlier research looked at socially disadvantaged groups,” agrees Antonella Sorace at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. “This has been completely contradicted by recent research” that compares more similar groups to each other.

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 trial and 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.”

Some of the insistence on English-first was founded in research produced decades ago, in which bilingual students underperformed monolingual English speakers and had lower IQ scores.

Today’s scholars, like Ellen Bialystok at York University in Toronto, now say that research was “deeply flawed.”

“Earlier research looked at socially disadvantaged groups,” agrees Antonella Sorace at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. “This has been completely contradicted by recent research” that compares more similar groups to each other.

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 trial and 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.”

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