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Study: The sharper minds of Bilinguals


There’s a new study out this week to add to the mounting stack of evidence that being bilingual has tremendous advantages, beyond the obvious one of being able to communicate with more people.

The latest comes from a pair of Northwestern University researchers who say that people who are bilingual have enhanced memory and are better able to pay attention. In a new study published in the April 30 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, bilingualism expert Viorica Marian, auditory neuroscientist Nina Kraus,and three other scholars, examined how bilingualism affects the brain—specifically looking at the subcortical auditory regions.

Using two groups of teenagers—23 bilingual English and Spanish speakers and 25 English-only speakers—the researchers recorded the students’ brainstem responses to speech sounds as they heard them in two conditions. In a quiet condition, the teenagers responded similarly, but against a noisy background, those with bilingual brains were “significantly better” at “encoding the fundamental frequency of speech sounds known to underlie pitch perception and grouping of auditory objects,” according to the study. In other words, the bilinguals’ brains were far superior to the monolinguals’ brains at sorting through the noise to pick out the spoken syllable “da.”

So what does this mean exactly?

Professor Marian explains it this way: “Bilinguals are natural jugglers,” she said in a news release about the study’s publication. “The bilingual juggles linguistic input and, it appears, automatically pays greater attention to relevant versus irrelevant sounds. Rather than promoting linguistic confusion, bilingualism promotes improved ‘inhibitory control,’ or the ability to pick out relevant speech sounds and ignore others.”

Can we expect that this study might have some impact on education policy when it comes to making decisions about educating English-learners? Dual-language programs are certainly popular among upper-income parents who want their children to learn a second language and they are increasingly becoming more available to ELL students, allowing them to build their literacy in their native language at the same time they learn English, but these programs are a long way from being accessible to the masses.

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Leading the Nation

*Excerpt from “Education Week: Momentum Builds for Dual-Language Learning”,
In Utah, a statewide dual-language-immersion initiative funded through the legislature – the first such broad-scale effort in the United States, according to experts – is now in its third year, said Gregg Roberts, a specialist in world languages and dual-language immersion for the state office of education.
By next fall, public elementary schools across Utah will offer 80 programs under the state initiative, with roughly 15,000 students enrolled in Spanish , Mandarin, French, and Portuguese.  The goal is to have 30,000 students enrolled in 100 programs by 2014, Mr. Roberts said.
“Utah is a small state and, for our future economic development and the national security of our country, we have to educate students who are multilingual,” he said.  “there is broad agreement in our state about that.  It’s not a red or blue issue here.”
Many of Utah’s programs so far are two-way Spanish-English immersion, drawing on the state’s growing Latino immigrant community, said Myriam Met, an expert on immersion programs who is working closely with Utah officials on the initiative.
But the most in-demand programs in Utah are Mandarin.  Ms. Met said there were fewer than 10 Chinese immersion programs in the nation in 2000.  The current estimate stands at 75 Chinese programs, and by next fall, roughly a quarter of those will be in Utah, she said.