Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

If “Bilinguals are Smarter” are Americans Dumber?

The Sunday 3/17 issue of the Times had an article about “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter,” arguing that bilingualism facilitates a kind of mental flexibility and muscle that has been proven by empirical studies with infants to the elderly; simultanous bilinguals (those that grow up with two languages) to successive bilinguals–those who learn a second language later in life.  That “bilingualism is a cognitive advantage” coincides with a similar message from Dr. Stephen Krashen who visited our college last week—but beyond bilingualism, he also noted that cognition improves through two additional activites: reading and drinking more coffee!

Read copiously, speak more than one language, drink a daily cup (or three) of coffee—this sounds like a treasure map to bliss.  I would only like to add to this list all the health benefits of chocolate and red wine in addition to empirical evidence that “retail therapy” actually does work (everything in moderation of course).

The NYTimes article sites a 2004 study with preschoolers on a sorting task, a 2009 study with babies and their “anticipatory gazes,” and a recent study with elder bilinguals who proved more resistant to dementia and Alzheimers—this is all great news and I’m indebted to scholars in the field of bilingualism who labor on studies to help prove what so many of us already know (through experience, through narrative, and yes—through rigorous study) to be true:

There are advantages to being bilingual.

This must have been the 15th, 25th, or maybe 37th article on the advantages of bilingualism that I’ve read in respected periodicals over the last 10 years.  (If I were more bilingual, I might be smarter and know with more precision how many of these articles I’ve read).  What I don’t understand is why the public continually receives this message, why so many of us ‘uhhum’ in agreement, and yet how seldom this makes a real difference in how we deliver language and literacy education to U.S. schoolchildren.  We still fundamentally believe (through unquestioned tax dollars) in the importance of tests to showcase student learning; tests that are exclusively in English; the misperception that any K-12 educational programming that is done in a non-English language will hurt students’ cognitive and test-taking abilities; test results are the be all end all indicator of student learning…..and the cycle continues.

Immigrant parents know the value of bilingualism but receive the implicit and explicit messages that what is important is to learn to read and write English.  English to pass the tests. English test scores to get to the next grade level.

Last week I translated for parent-teacher conferences at a local school and in one session a boy’s mother was warned that the tests indicated her son was way behind grade level reading.  Dr. Krashen pointed to the irony that “grade level” means 50% and that if one understands the math, it is impossible for all children at a certain age to be “at grade level” because only 50% can actually be there! (I am still working out the math but I think I get his point!).  The parent, hearing the serious message –that her child might not pass to fourth grade– through my interpreter’s voicebox, asked “But what can I do? He only wants to play soccer, and he doesn’t want to read.  And I don’t read English.  What can I do?”

My mind began to wander to newspapers and magazines in Spanish about soccer matches, wondering if the parent might find internet sites or an engaging soccer “home-run” story in Spanish to share (read Jim Trelease on the home-run story).  I dared to add another unstated question to my translated list: “What language can I read to my child in? Is it okay for me to read in Spanish?”

The teacher responded: English.  Read in English.  Maybe find an older sibling or a neighbor that can read to him in English if you can’t.

What that parent (and child) “can” do was lost.  Research has shown, continues to show—25, 37 times over—that reading, in whatever language, promotes universal literacy skills.  Reading in a non-English language actually HELPS reading skills in English.  Why wasn’t this the teacher’s first message? Because in our current testing climate and monolingual culture, despite all the news articles and research extolling the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, it’s still perceived as a deficit—especially when it comes to immigrant children and their families.

Those of us who read the NYTimes article (or any of the others like it) may all agree that bilingualism is an advantage. But it’s an advantage we seem to agree we U.S. taxpayers and voters can (and some zealous patriots still say ‘should’) all live without. The ways we shape, (over)test and (under) fund our public education system denies that bilingual advantage from all U.S. children, but most outrageously it is denied from immigrant youth who have the most potential access to growing up bilingual.  Immigrant youth, especially the density of Spanish speakers in the U.S., introduce an invaluable language resource into our school systems that is not only untapped, it’s plugged.

The article explains “Why Bilinguals are Smarter” but it doesn’t yet begin to explain “Why (most) Americans Aren’t Bilingual.”  Does this make us “dumber” than the rest of the bi/multi-lingual speakers in the world?

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