"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Foreign Tongue Based - Multilingual Education

There seems to be something wrong with the title of this post.

A child in Los Angeles, California was asking his mother, “Mom, you don’t understand, I’m going into this classroom, but I’m supposed to be over there because that is where the English speaking kids are.” (http://projects.scpr.org/bilinguallearning/) There are indeed a wide variety of opinions regarding what language should be used as medium of instruction in schools. Preserving and nurturing the mother tongue is, of course, a valid reason for why the native language must be taught in schools. The controversial part is the claim that children learn better with the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the early years. This is where viewpoints and studies diverge. To find the correct answer to this question is challenging since the medium of instruction is only one of the many factors that can influence learning. High in the list of factors that affect learning is the teacher. A highly motivated teacher can really make a difference and in studies that lack control, oftentimes, the teachers who are participating are those who are innovative, effective and well prepared. Well designed studies in this area are therefore demanding for so many reasons, not to mention the fact that there are ethical considerations since such research involves human subjects. 

There are some scientists who are addressing this question from a physiological basis. In this manner, one is then able to extract the specific question of language learning from a myriad of factors inside a classroom setting. One example is Barbara Conboy, a professor at the University of Redlands in California. Her work has been featured in Southern California's "Bilingual Learning" website (a special report from Southern California Public Radio). Conboy has examined brain activity in both infants and toddlers as these young children are exposed to a second language. This area of research is still emerging, yet the following opinion given by Magary Lavandenz, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, provides insights of what scientists in this area have found so far:

Lavadenz said that as infants get older and are only exposed to certain languages, “we delete those other language sound systems.” 
The brain begins to focus more exclusively on what it is hearing, losing the ability to understand different languages. Conboy said this process is called “neural commitment.”

The brain is committing itself to the languages it is hearing. So the younger a child is, the more the brain will be open to trying to process new sounds and languages. 
The younger brain is simply working on it more than an older child or adult as the child has still not become completely entrenched in a language. 
But as children hear only one language, they “delete” other language systems from their brain, according to Professor Lavadenz. 
That’s why kids who are older when they are immersed in a language they’ve never heard before can struggle. It can require more motivation from the child to stick with it.

Since there are indeed schools in California that now offer "foreign tongue based - multilinngual education", data regarding how a foreign language affects learning are not confined to the brain studies mentioned above. The El Marino Language School is one example. In these schools, children are taught in a target language (different from the child's mother tongue) sometimes as much as ninety percent of the time. These schools participate in statewide standardized tests. Since these programs have been in place for so many years now, test results are available, and students from El Marino scored an API of 931 in 2011. API is the Academic Performance Indicator obtained from the standard tests in California. A score of 931 ranks El Marino as one of the best schools in California (well inside the 90th percentile).  In this school, children receive only 10% of the instruction in English at kindergarten. With each year, the amount of English is increased by 10% so that by fifth grade, the instruction is now 50:50 between the foreign language and English. Of course, one could ask the question of why parents would enroll their children in such a school. Why would a parent whose child had only heard and spoken English send the child to learn Kindergarten in Japanese? There must be something special with these parents. The program of instruction is demanding enough that it may tend to filter the type of families that would avail of such programs. The motivation and participation of parents in early childhood education are known to be important factors. This is the reason why brain studies provide an independent means of extracting the role of language acquisition in a child's education.

To learn more about the role of language in a child's education please visit "Bilingual Learning":

http://projects.scpr.org/bilinguallearning/
The following is an introductory video from this website:






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