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Bilingualism: What happens in the brain?

According to this article, bilingualism is on the rise in the United States. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of people over the age of 5 that speak a language other than English at home (20.7 percent) has more than doubled since 1980, where it was at 9.6 percent. With the rising number for bilingual people, there also comes an increase in research into the science of this skill. Questions that come up are: “Do the brains of bilinguals differ from those of monolinguals?” “And do bilinguals have the edge over monolinguals when it comes to cognitive functioning and learning new languages? “. The author of this article sought out to answer some of these questions.

The author, Yella Hewings-Martin PhD gives examples of dispelling myths; one of those being that mixing languages holds bilingual children back from learning both languages. However, children do not lag behind monolinguals when it comes to language development. In fact, according to Hewings-Martin, children are capable of developing vocabulary in two languages without being confused. When they do mix words from different languages in once sentence, this is known as code-switching and it is not because children cannot tell which word belongs to which language.

According to the author, once a bilingual person hears words in one language, the other language is also activated. Scientists believe that the brains of bilinguals adapt to the constant conversation of two languages, and this is how their brains are different than those of monolinguals. The author pulls together a series of studies and on going investigations into the benefits of bilingualism. Research gathered shows that different areas of the brain are needed to cope with phonological competition from within the same language, compared with between language competition.  Since there is competition between the two languages, bilinguals require additional frontal control and in subcortical regions.

Another benefit stated through research from the author, indicates attributes to cognitive health since attention control is a central aspect of cognitive health that tends to decline with age, however, boots in the attention systems through bilingualism have potential to sustain cognitive function in older age. This is developed through the ongoing used of attention needed to manage selection between two jointly-activated languages. Task switching was also addressed in the article because research results done in one study indicated that bilinguals were faster at disengaging their attention from one trial so that they could focus on the next trial when a different response was required.

Finally, in the last piece of evidence presented by the author, it has to do with electroencephalogram analysis and how researchers found a clear difference in the brain waves of both monolingual and bilingual students when listening to sentences in the language chosen for the study: Brocato2. This small study indicated that there was novel brain-based data point towards a distinct language-learning benefit for people who grew up bilingual. Over all the research done by the author reaffirms the importance of bilingualism of all kinds of languages as well as the differences in those who and bilingual compared to those who are not.

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The joys and benefits of bilingualism

The article describes how a man and his wife move their children from England, where the children were raised, back to their home land, Italy. There the author explains how the children must try to become fully bilingual in both English and Italian.

When the children were younger, growing up in England, they used to speak Italian but because their mother wanted to assimilate them into the English world, the children lost their ability to speak the language although they were still able to understand it. The father, who is the author of the article talks about how their personalities have changed as they relearn the language (Italian), and how interesting it is to see these changes when they speak and in how they act.

Jones briefly talks about bilingualism and how it has changed peoples opinions over the years. Until recent years, bilingualism was seen as bad because it was considered to be “deleterious to development”, and it was also thought to “impede integration at school and probably lead to academic regression and confusion,”. Later, according to Jones, some studies concluded and proved the complete opposite. What emerged, through hundreds of experiments, was the notion that rather than having two different “pockets” containing French and English, the bilingual’s brain had one huge holdall for both, according to Jones.

Along with this, other research arose about the ability to empathize through the acquisition of more than one language. It was obvious to the author that if a bilingual is habitually changing their language to accommodate the interlocutor and their context, the bilinguals inevitably going to be used to taking into account other people’s abilities and points of view. Jones goes on to name other benefits and studies that have shown that speaking a secondary language has been and is beneficial for those who speak it, and how he has seen this first hand with his children.

However, Jones knows that not everyone is on board when it comes to bilingualism. Nationalists see it as a bad thing, calling “code-switching” traitorous.  In recent years, certain separatist movements have assiduously promoted their own tongue and, inadvertently or deliberately, reduced the use of another. The author also touches base on the differences between languages, and how he finds it hard to think in one language and speak in another, because there are usually no equivalent phrases or words to the ones he knows in English, and so he cannot translate them directly into Italian.

He ends by saying that, the hypothesis – known also as “linguistic relativism” – surely points to a truth: that the more languages we know, the more agile our conceptual thinking will be. He says that when someone learns a new language they not only learn new words, or sounds, but new notions. This is what he has witnessed first hand with his children. Jones compares this to putting on new glasses to be able to see the world with different eyes. Through this acquisition of different languages, one is able to then gain a different perspective on the world.


Bilingual Children have a Two-Tracked Mind

The article, written by Ithaca College focuses on a hypothesis that ‘(if) bilingual children  differ in their productions between languages, they will nevertheless maintain a similar level of overall approximation,’ according to Freedman. According to this article, this hypothesis was confirmed due to a study done using English-Hungarian bilingual children. However, this hypothesis has never been tested in Spanish, which is surprising considering it is the fastest-growing language currently in the United States and therefore was tested in this article.

Freedman’s study compared the languages productions of five English-Spanish bilingual children during a picture-naming task, to the production of five English-only and five Spanish-only speaking children. Through these results, Freedman was able to confirm his hypothesis. He found that bilingual children produce more complex forms in Spanish than in English. However, they approximated English and Spanish to the same degree. In addition to this, Freedman found that there was no production differences between bilingual children and the children who only spoke on language, indicating a sufficient amount of independence between a bilingual child’s two sound systems. According to Freedman, the finding in this study make a case against “not exposing children to more than one language at birth because they might be confused or overwhelmed,” since the bilingual children in this study managed to learn two sets of words at the same time and keep those two systems separate, thus proving that they can keep the sound systems separate.

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Bilingual babies: Study shows how exposure to a foreign language ignites infants’ learning

According to the author, Deborah Bach,  scientists and parents alike have touted the benefits of introducing babies to two languages. According to this article, bilingual experience has been shown to improve cognitive abilities, specifically problem-solving.  The question this article asks is the following: how can babies in monolingual households develop skills that infants raised in a bilingual home do?

A new study by I-LABS researchers, published July 17 in Mind, Brain, and Education, is one of the first to investigate how babies can learn a second language outside of the home. Therefore, this study sought to answer the question: ‘Can babies be taught a second language if they don’t get foreign language exposure at home, and if so, what kind of foreign language exposure, and how much, is needed to spark that learning?’

The study was taken to and conducted in Madrid, Spain. Here, an English-language method, curriculum and implementing took place in Madrid’s public education system, where researchers were able to enroll 280 infants and children from families of varying income levels. Based on I-LABS research, methods emphasized in this study were social interactions, play, and high quality and quantity of language from the teachers. These approaches included “infant-directed speech”, a style used by parents to talk to their babies, which includes simpler grammar, higher and exaggerated pitch, and drawn-out vowels. According to their research this type of approach helps babies learn language.

Babies in the study, ages 7-33.5 months were given one hour of English sessions a day for 18 weeks, while the control group received the Madrid schools standard bilingual program. According to Bach, both groups of children were tested in Spanish and English at the start and end of the 18 weeks. The children also wore special vests with lightweight recorders to record their English learning. The recordings were analyzed to determine how many English words and phrases each child spoke.

The study found that by the end of the 18 weeks, the children in the program out-performed the children in the control group in English comprehension and production. Thus the findings in this study suggest  that even babies from monolingual homes can develop bilingual abilities at an early age with the right science-based approach that combines the features known to grow children’s language. It is possible to give very young children the opportunity to start learning a second language, according to Ferjan Ramirez.

Follow-up testing 18 weeks later showed the children had retained what they learned. The English gains were similar between children attending the two schools serving predominantly low-income neighborhoods and the two serving mid-income areas, suggesting that wealth was not a significant factor in the infants’ ability to learn a foreign language. Children’s native language (Spanish) continued to grow as they were learning English, and was not negatively affected by introducing a second language, according to Bach.

According to the author the information provided has the potential to transform how early language instruction is approached in the United States and worldwide.


Learning a foreign language a ‘must’ in Europe, not so in America

Kat Devlin writes a quick article on the stereotypical American tourist, one who is at a loss when it comes to coping with any language other than English. This could be largely in part because students in the U.S are not required to learn another language while growing up. On the other hand in Europe, students are required to learn multiple languages in the classroom before becoming teens, according to Devlin.

According the a 2012 report from Eurostat, starting to study a second language for at least one year is compulsory in more than 20 European countries and is done so between the ages of 6 and 9. However, the starting ages range from country to country as well as the second language being introduced. This study did find that English was the most-studied foreign language all across Europe at all education levels and this can be seen in countries that require students to learn English as well as schools who do not enforce that requirement. The second most popular languages being studied across Europe are French and German, followed by Spanish and Russian, and all other languages making up about 5% in most countries.

In the United States however, nationwide foreign-language is not mandated at any level of education, according to Devlin. States are able to establish language requirements in high schools and primary schools but there are very low rates of even offering foreign-language courses. Devlin suggests that it is perhaps because of these standards, few Americans who claim to speak a non-English language say that they acquired those skills in school. Most of these multilinguals, 89% said they acquired these skills in their childhood home , with only 7% reporting that school was their main setting for language acquisition and thus affirming Devlin’s suggestion.


Do Musicians Make Better Language Learners?

The article written by Aneta Pavlenko begins with the naming of singers who perform in several different languages, from Italian to Spanish, French to German, Portuguese, Arabic, Czech, and of course English. According to Pavlenko, these examples provide evidence for those who believe that people with musical talent- or at least musical training- have an easier time learning foreign languages. Pavlenko states that this can be due to the musicians ability to pick up sound patterns of the second language because of their years of training with pitch and sound patterns.

However, the link between musical ability and second language learning is not as direct as one would think, because each area (music and language) is represented in different areas of the brain. Further evidence of this separation comes from people with language impairments, who still retain their musical ability, and vice versa. Both language and music reply on similar processes: detection of differences in pitch, meter, rhythm, phrasing and interpretation, tonal memory, memory for long sequences, and the ability to imitate and improvise based on familiar sequences. This ultimately lead researchers to two questions: Are abilities in one domain easily transferred to another? And are musicians better second language learners than the rest of us?

To help answer these questions, researchers turned to languages that differ in uses of pitch or perceived frequency, how musical ability affects the learning of L2 Mandarin by L1 English speakers. They found that months of private music lessons were better predictors of the accuracy of tonal word learning than general cognitive ability and L2 aptitude, according to Pavlenko. Other studies done provided evidence that musical variables were not powerful predictors, but instead that a key predictor was the success on linguistic tasks involving tone discrimination. Despite these findings there was no conclusive evidence that musicians were better at L2 learning or had superior pronunciation skills.

Due to this data Diana Deutsch and her colleges hypothesized that perhaps speakers of tonal languages would have superior sensitivity to pitch. This hypothesis was tested along with other studies and found that speakers of tonal languages were better at identifying musical pitches than speakers of English or French and were more likely to have absolute pitch, according to Pavlenko. In conclusion, that author states that there is much more to L2 learning than tonal discrimination and when it comes to syntax, vocabulary or pragmatics, musicians have no advantage over the rest of us. However, this does not mean that music cannot be useful in learning a language.


What Canada’s population will look like in 2036

The article written by Patrick Cain claims that by the time Canada rolls out the 2036 census, the country will be shaped even more by the many trends that are being seen today.

It is expected that 40 percent of the working-age population will be minorities, the number of people practicing non-Christian religion will double, most of the immigrant population will be from Asian countries, and the immigration population will continue to flood to major cities in Canada. However, the most important aspect of this article was how immigration will change “Canada’s always-thorny” language politics. However,  the article did not say how they will change.

According to the statistics presented in this article, the change in language policies will be due to the percentage increase of the population having another mother tongue besides English or French, thus it is predicted that the  French mother tongue population will fall in places like Quebec and the rest of Canada.  This will also result in, according to the article, English to be spoken more often than French. More Francophones will become bilingual and will cause less Canadians to be able to speak French at all, according to Cain.

The results of these changes, according to the article, will hint at long-term pressures on bilingual programs, although English-French bilingualism aren’t expected to go anywhere.


What Canada’s population will look like in 2036


Washington Schools see Bilingual Students as Future Bilingual Educators

In Highline Public Schools, the district has set an ambitious goal of graduating all students as bilingual by 2026.  The district is pursuing the ‘grow your own’ idea by helping instructional aids become teachers and guiding current students towards teaching careers, according to Neal Morton. Their primary purpose for this is to make it easier to find enough bilingual educators to teach students in multiple languages.  According to Morton, currently recruiters for such educators have to travel to job fairs across the country, sometimes even to Puerto Rico to find Spanish-and Vietnamese-speaking teachers to fill the classrooms in the districts growing dual language programs. Not only is this district determined to find educators, they are also willing to help bilingual instructional aids in completing their bachelors degree in order to become teachers because of the high demand for bilingual teachers within the district.

The district is also looking at other ways to help with their expanding bilingual program such as competing for a new state grant aimed to help them with recruitment, prepare and mentor bilingual high-school students to become future bilingual teachers and counselors.  The Washington Legislature also approved a bill for the district to help design and start the “grow-your-own” teacher academics for bilingual positions. The main focus for this program is to strengthen the school system within the community by educating those already within the system.  With the increase of English learners, about 45 percent of those teaching English learners were instructional aids which the district believes is setting kids up to fail because the instructional aids have not received proper training which further reinforces the need to help fund bachelor degrees for these aids.

The districts further stressed that it will still be difficult to receive more funding and that they will try and partner with other districts to apply for grants to help them in their ‘grow-you-own’ programs. Regardless, the district will continue to keep moving forward with different ways to help its growing English learner population.



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Embracing Bilingualism in the Classroom: What Role Will You Play?

The article beings with a quick anecdote about the author, Daniella Suarez and her recollections from her first day of 5th grade as a new student at a Florida Public elementary school.  Her story is one rooted in profiling based on language, name, and race. Something that has occurred in the past and continues to happen today, due to the political climate of people who wish to silence those who speak another language, according to Suarez. Her story begins on the first day of her new school; Suarez tells that although she had tested into gifted classes, was fluent in both English and Spanish, and was scoring in the 99th percentile on state assessments, she was still singled out and taken to an English-as-a-second-language class.  She recalls that back then this didn’t make sense to her and that she began to doubt herself even more because of it.

Suarez argues that as a nation we have a troubled history dealing with bilingualism even though the United States often labels its self a “nation of immigrants” and this is due enlarge because of politics. She then states that people from the United States tend to forget that many of those “immigrants” did not cross U.S. boarders, but instead that the U.S. boarders crossed them.  An example of this written by Patricia Gandara and Kathy Escamilla states that by the 19th century, the United States had annexed land from Mexico and sovereign indigenous nations. During this time indigenous languages received no support in bilingual education such as languages like German, French, and Spanish which did, and therefore were forced to give up their lands, culture, and language. However, after World War I the United States embraced “Americanization,” and English-only education became law for many states thus getting rid of the German, French, and Spanish language in schools. Due to this Spanish-speaking students along the Mexican-American boarder became subject to segregation and were taught only in English which causes school completion rates to drop tremendously for those students.

Then in 1959, the Cuban Revolution resulted in a mass migration from Cubans to Miami according to Suarez and because they were wealthier and more educated then Mexican counterparts, they were able to demand a more powerful bilingual education system by establishing businesses and electing Cubans into public offices. This gave way to the Coral Way School which later became a nationwide model for bilingual education. Suarez notes that although Cubans in the 90’s were advancing, Haitian and Nicaraguan students were not, and this was most likely because these groups were largely undocumented. She argues that because English-learners still face similar political and cultural barriers as educators it is important to be careful not to reinforce rhetoric that stigmatizes immigrants and promotes an English-only culture.

Nowadays federal regulations have pushed states to create formal structures for students to enter and exit ELL programs, as well as allow for more flexible testing. However, because of things like high-states testing many schools have opted out of exploring bilingual models and often only promote English education. Today, things are changing according to Suarez and bilingual programs are here to stay due to the benefits they provide for english-learners. They provide a safe space for learning, allow children to experience academic success in their home language, and invite families to take part in their child’s education. This is also helpful for English speakers because it gives them opportunity to practice empathy and experience greater inclusivity. Suarez urges educators of their responsibility in defending and promoting bilingualism in their classrooms, school sites, and districts. She challenges educators to check their biases as students learn a new language because many of these students are also learning a new culture and education system, and these students should be met half way. Finally, she says that the feeling of being singled out has never left her, and therefore educators should be aware of what all of their students experience in and outside of school so that all students can feel safe and can be capable of authentic self-expression at school.





Raising a Truly Bilingual Child


True bilingualism by Klass’ definition means the ability to speak two languages proficiently as a native. Something he believes is a struggle and only few can reach. He argues that competent bilingualism probably only exists in countries outside of the United States, because in the United States children aren’t exposed to other languages. Early exposure to other languages however, can offer certain advantages when it comes to facilitating the formation of sounds in those languages. One key point that Klass touches on is that a child’s natural language ability alone will not be enough for true bilingualism, a massive amount of person to person exposure of both languages and effort are required as well.  This is difficult to do in the United States because of its monolingual environment, Erika Hoff says.

The article touches base on how a stronger sense of a language can be achieved through different types of exposures, for instance through literature. Hoff argues that a child who is learning two languages will have a limited vocabulary in both when compared to a child only exposed to one language, meaning that it takes longer to acquire two languages than one. However, Hoff claims this is not a problem provided the child receives enough input. Still, Hoff defends that when it comes to two languages in the United States, English will outweigh the Spanish exposure and thus cause the speaker of both languages to become more proficient in English. Whatever the case may be, the earlier exposure a child receives the more native they will sound. Although true bilingualism can be rare, the skills a child learns along the way are very valuable as well as a great advantage and therefore should be pursued.

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