Friday, October 22, 2010

Bilingual children learn even better

My children are bilingual English and Danish, since their father is Danish. They also speak French, Spanish and German. Their early years were spent in Denmark, where there are many foreign language programs in TV, and usually only children's cartoons were dubbed. So they got used to hearing not only English and Danish, but also Norwegian and Swedish and many other languages. My son used to pretend talk in various languages, with a perfect accent (but few words and no grammar.) Both have grown up to be very smart and culturally very adaptable.
An article in Education Week show that science behind my experience bears out. Science Grows on Acquiring New Language.
“We have this national psyche that we’re not good at languages,” said Marty Abbott, the director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Alexandria, Va. “It’s still perceived as something only smart people can do, and it’s not true; we all learned our first language and we can learn a second one.”
I started wondering if all these monolingual teachers are afraid to let their bilingual students be "better" than they are, since they can do something the teacher can't.
I am always perplexed to meet students who speak another language at home, but have not been encouraged to keep building it to a level of Academic Competence. While I was studying secondary math education at Claremont Graduate University I found that many of my foreign-born fellow students did not know how to talk about Mathematics in their native language. They miss out on the opportunity to approach problem solving with the logic of two different languages. What a waste!
Other studies also suggest that learning multiple languages from early childhood on may provide broader academic benefits, too.
For example, at the science-oriented Ultimate Block Party held in New York City this month, children of different backgrounds played games in which they were required to sort toys either by shape or color, based on a rule indicated by changing flashcards. A child sorting blue and yellow ducks and trucks by shape, say, might suddenly have to switch to sorting them by color. The field games exemplified research findings that bilingual children have greater cognitive flexibility than monolingual children. That is, they can adapt better than monolingual children to changes in rules—What criteria do I use to sort?—and close out mental distractions—It doesn’t matter that some blue items are ducks and some are trucks.
When I get my own math classrooms, I plan to encourage bilingual students to talk math in both English and their native language. Bilingual immersion programs to this very well, but I think that regular classrooms can also encourage this (as long as there are at least 2 students who speak a particular language.) Math concepts are the same, and a lot of the vocabulary is cognate in some languages.
When I lived in Denmark, whenever we teachers had to do book inventory at the end of the year, I found myself starting to count in Danish, "en, to, tre, fire, fem seks, syv, otte, ni, ti....eleven, twelve, thirteen...." I've heard other foreign born adults do the same. But the counting is the same!
Our language is a very important part of our identity. As part of my CGU coursework, I wrote a blog called Negotiated Identity, where I reflect on a book Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society we read for class, and brought in a lot of other thoughts and material that I discovered as I read.
Students who are born with two languages are extremely lucky! We have to encourage them to become truly bilingual, also in their academic language.

No comments:

Post a Comment