This is your brain on language

Canadian research psychologist Ellen Bialystok with electrode caps for use with an electroencephalograph. (Photo used with permission of Ellen Bialystok)Canadian research psychologist Ellen Bialystok with electrode caps for use with an electroencephalograph. (Photo used with permission of Ellen Bialystok)

This essay is a product of the larger radio documentary The Science of Smart, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

For decades psychologists cautioned against raising children bilingual. They warned parents and teachers that learning a second language as a child was bad for brain development. But recent studies have found exactly the opposite. Researchers now believe that when people learn another language, they develop cognitive advantages that improve their attention, self-control, and ability to deal with conflicting information.

Today, the benefits of bilingualism are being put to the test in schools all across Utah.

The first graders

The first graders of Arrowhead Elementary in Santa Clara, Utah, are giggling. Their math teacher, Jing Sun, has just made a little subtraction joke. She drew red circles on a whiteboard, erased one, and asked, “Where did he run away to?” The kids think it’s hilarious.

It’s a joke that could be made in any first-grade math class across the United States — except that here, in southern Utah, in front of a classroom full of blond children in braids and crew cuts, Ms. Sun is speaking Mandarin Chinese. That’s the only language she speaks in the classroom: English is, emphatically, not allowed here. And the students in this class, who’ve been in Arrowhead’s Chinese program only about two months, seem to understand almost everything Ms. Sun is saying.

Teacher Ping Ji at Arrowhead Elementary. In Utah immersion schools, teachers speak no English to their students. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Teacher Ping Ji at Arrowhead Elementary. In Utah immersion schools, teachers speak no English to their students. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

At Arrowhead Elementary, half of the kindergarteners, first-graders and second-graders spend half of each day in classes taught entirely in Mandarin Chinese. This model of language education is known as “dual immersion”: The students learn civics and reading in English, and math and science in a second language.

Arrowhead implemented its immersion program three years ago, hiring native Mandarin-speaking teachers through a partnership between the Chinese government and the state of Utah. Principal Susan Harrah initially faced some resistance from parents and staff.

“Our faculty just weren’t ready for it,” she says. “A lot of them weren’t dual immersion teachers, so a lot of them had — not bitter feelings, but they didn’t want to have any part of any type of a language program at all.”

Students in a Chinese immersion program at Arrowhead Elementary learn their numbers in Mandarin by counting pieces of cereal. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Students in a Chinese immersion program learn their numbers in Mandarin by counting pieces of cereal. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

“I have to say that I was not for it,” says Jackie Fonnesbeck, one of Arrowhead’s kindergarten teachers. “I was very worried about the math, because that’s where they’re learning the basics, and I felt like they needed to have a good, strong base in English before they learn it in Chinese.”

Three years into the program, Arrowhead’s immersion skeptics have become its greatest fans. Test scores for immersion students at the school are slightly higher than they are for non-immersion kids. There’s a waiting list to get into the program. And the school’s teachers – even the English language ones — are now big supporters.

“I don’t think the immersion kids know that they’re doing anything special,” says kindergarten teacher Kris Seely. “It’s just what they do.”

“It’s fun to see them learning and talking in Chinese,” says Fonnesbeck. “It’s amazing these children can do this, because I sure can’t. The younger they get started, the better off they’re going to be. You’re in awe when you see it.”

Arrowhead Elementary is just one of the more than 100 public schools in Utah that have launched language immersion programs in the past five years. The state is in the midst of a massive experiment to see whether it can quickly, cheaply, and effectively create tens of thousands of fluent foreign language speakers, virtually overnight.

The unlikely allies

The Utah language experiment can, perhaps, be best credited to a pair of unlikely allies named Howard Stephenson and Gregg Roberts. Stephenson is a state senator from a Salt Lake City suburb, a conservative Republican politician who serves as chair of the Senate Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee and, when he’s not legislating, as president of a Utah anti-tax group and as host of a right-wing radio show called Red Meat Radio.

Gregg Roberts, Utah’s dual language specialist, describes himself as “as liberal as they come” and still sounds baffled when asked how he came to be working with Stephenson on immersion education.

“I think I just drink a lot, and said yes when I should have said no,” he jokes.

But together the two men have crafted and executed the nation’s most ambitious state-led immersion program.

Nathan Abbott, a teacher at Utah's Cascade Elementary, points out Mandarin characters. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Nathan Abbott, a teacher at Utah’s Cascade Elementary, points out Mandarin characters. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

The seeds of the Utah immersion experiment were planted in 2007, when then-governor Jon Huntsman drafted Roberts and Stephenson to bring so-called critical languages like Arabic and Chinese to Utah high schools. Stephenson led the charge in the Senate, arguing that there was an economic imperative to teach Utah students these languages.

“I pointed out that we simply must connect with China in particular as they are rising economically and becoming a bigger part of our world,” Stephenson says. “We simply must be able to connect with them culturally, educationally, and economically. How do we expect to be present in a country without showing that we can speak that language? I believe that’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

But Roberts and Stephenson both realized fairly quickly that a few years of high school language classes wasn’t going to churn out fluent students, capable of making business deals in China. After all, how much do any of us remember from our high school French classes?

“We realized that if we’re really serious about language education in this state, we really have to start when they’re young,” says Roberts. “Because language acquisition takes time. … It’s not going to happen in two years in a high school class.”

Stephenson went back to the state Senate, this time asking legislators to fund immersion programs in elementary schools all over the state. Again, his main pitch was economic, focusing on languages that would be useful in future world markets: Spanish and French, but also Chinese, for business with Asian markets. Utah’s a fairly small state in the middle of the country, and lawmakers figured its students and future businesspeople could use any advantage they could get.

“That helped,” Stephenson says, “but we did have some strong opposition from people who didn’t understand the nature of the world we’re living in today, and didn’t understand language acquisition. Some people were worried that we were learning the wrong languages.”

Mandarin immersion students in Utah learn to read and write Chinese characters. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Mandarin immersion students in Utah learn to read and write Chinese characters. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

One of Stephenson’s Senate colleagues spoke out adamantly against the bill. “She said, ‘I happen to know that Chinese is a very difficult language, and to expect school children to learn it is not rational,’” Stephenson says. “‘Why don’t we just stick with the romance languages that are more similar to English and supposedly more easy for our children to understand?’”

Lawmakers were also concerned about the money it would take to implement a large-scale immersion program in the state. No state spends less per pupil on education than Utah.

But senators were also influenced by Utah’s Mormon heritage and missionary tradition.

“We send missionaries all over the world from Utah,” says Roberts. “Where other [states] might see language learning as threatening to them, I think Utahans embrace it as a very big positive. So I really think we have that ingrained in us in Utah, and I think it [was] a selling point for sure.”

In the end, legislators agreed to provide a small amount of seed money to schools that applied to switch to an immersion model: about $5,000 per classroom where immersion was implemented.

Roberts and Stephenson had ambitious goals: 20 schools in the first year, 100 schools in the next five.

“There was some lack of confidence that any school would ever apply for this,” says Stephenson.

Gregg Roberts became the pitchman for the program, traveling around the state, toting a laptop with a 30-slide PowerPoint about all the benefits of dual language education. Roberts expected that the parents and administrators he was speaking to would care most about the economic benefits of language learning. He was a little surprised, he says now, to realize that what they seemed most excited about was what language learning could do for their children’s brains.

The science

Brain researchers who study bilingualism believe that the act of juggling two languages strengthens the brain system that helps people pay attention. That strong capacity to focus might be what leads to better academic performance in some children who grow up bilingual or attend language immersion programs.

ARW's Stephen Smith, wired up for an EEG in Bialystock's cognitive research lab.

ARW’s Stephen Smith, wired up for an EEG in Bialystok’s cognitive research lab.

Canadian psychologist Ellen Bialystok, at York University in Toronto, studies how the brains of bilingual people work in comparison to people who speak just one language. She wires up the skulls of test subjects from both groups to an electroencephalograph (EEG), a device that records electrical activity produced by neurons in the brain. One of the experiments she performs is called the Ericksen flanker task, which measures a person’s attention and ability to screen out unwanted stimuli. Bilingual people generally perform better on the test than monolinguals.

In Bialystok’s cognitive performance lab, the test subject watches a computer monitor that flashes a set of five arrows arrayed in a line. Depending on where the center arrow is pointing, the subject clicks a computer mouse in her left or right hand. The arrows flanking the central target add cognitive noise to the pattern. The subject has to ignore those arrows and focus on the center one. The speed and accuracy of the test subject’s reactions are measured by the computer. The EEG detects how hard her brain had to work to sort out the target arrow from the flanking noise.

Lab participants are given instructions before beginning the flanker task, which measures attention and inhibitory control. (Photo: Cognitive Development Lab at York University)

Lab participants are given instructions before beginning the flanker task, which measures attention and inhibitory control. (Photo: Cognitive Development Lab at York University)

Bialystok believes bilinguals are better at tuning out the noise. Their brains may have a stronger “executive control” system because of the need to switch, mentally, between languages.

“What we now know based on massive research is that both languages are always active [in the brain] to some degree,” Bialystok says. So if French were her first language and English her second, “Why don’t half my sentences come out with French words by accident?” she asks.

When the outside arrows point the same direction as the middle arrow, people typically get the right answer more quickly. (Photo: Cognitive Development Lab at York University)

When the outside arrows point the same direction as the middle arrow, people typically get the right answer more quickly. (Photo: Cognitive Development Lab at York University)

That rarely happens in bilinguals, Bialystok says, because the executive control system — a network in the brain’s frontal lobe — is busy focusing the mind’s attention on English, screening out the French words. The network is a kind of traffic control system that helps organize and regulate thinking. When a bilingual person calls on the network to manage the traffic of dual languages, it gets stronger.

“Bilinguals are more efficient in resolving mental competition,” says psychology professor Judith Kroll, an expert on bilingualism and director of the Center for Language Studies at Penn State. “They’re apparently able to keep languages separate while keeping them both available and active in their minds at the same time.”

When the flanking arrows point the opposite direction from the middle arrow, a person trying to pay attention to the middle arrow can be slowed down or confused by the cognitive “noise.” Bilingual people are generally better at tuning out this noise. (Photo: Cognitive Development Lab at York University)

When the flanking arrows point the opposite direction from the middle arrow, a person trying to pay attention to the middle arrow can be slowed down or confused by the cognitive “noise.” Bilingual people are generally better at tuning out this noise. (Photo: Cognitive Development Lab at York University)

Today, bilingualism is seen as having cognitive benefits, but that wasn’t always the case. When Bialystok was an undergraduate in the 1960s, psychologists saw bilingualism as a disadvantage.

“There was a profoundly pervasive belief that languages were hard for children,” Bialystok says. “And that if you made a child bilingual you risked, to quote a textbook of the 1950s, ‘mental retardation.’”

In our contemporary, multitasking society, notions have changed. A bilingual person with a strong executive control system may have an edge.

“Everything that we do that requires focused, selective attention — ignoring salient distractors that are trying to compete for attention, shifting between two things that we are trying to do at the same time, manipulating information — that is all frontal-lobe, executive function stuff,” Bialystok says.

In functional MRI scans of test subjects doing the flanker task, researchers can see that the part of the brain that is believed to house the executive control system uses less blood flow in bilinguals.

“In the frontal part of the brains of bilinguals, it appears that the brain is not working as hard,” says graduate student Ashley Chung, a researcher in Bialystok’s lab.

Researchers have also discovered that bilingualism may provide some protection for the brains of aging people. Studies show that the onset of dementia occurs later in the brains of bilingual people. The executive control system, researchers say, is the last one to fully develop (think teenagers) and the first to decline, but strengthening it may slow that decline.

Bialystok and Kroll say one reason language can have such a profound effect on the brain is because of how deeply we are steeped in language. We use language constantly, to speak, to read, and to think. Compare that to time spent in other cognitive activities such as practicing music or making mathematical calculations.

“Over the course of your life you have vastly more experience using language than most of these other domains,” Kroll says.

Kroll and Bialystok caution not to get too far in front of the research by making assumptions about the benefits of bilingualism. Scientists are still working to determine exactly what mechanism makes bilingual brains gain greater executive control. And there’s no guarantee that growing up bilingual, or in a language immersion program, will prove beneficial for any given individual.

This electroencephalograph (EEG) shows the sample participant's brain activity over five trials of the Flanker task, with each line representing activity from an electrode embedded in an electrode cap. (Photo: Cognitive Development Lab at York University)

This electroencephalograph (EEG) shows a sample participant’s brain activity over five trials of the Flanker task, with each line representing activity from an electrode embedded in an electrode cap. (Photo: Cognitive Development Lab at York University)

The family

On a Tuesday evening in October, Stacy Steiner is sitting at her kitchen island with her son Tiger and stepson Justin, watching them copy Chinese characters into workbooks. Justin and Tiger are both first-graders at Horizon Elementary, another immersion school about 10 miles from Arrowhead.

When it came time to register the boys for first grade, Stacy had a choice: put them in Horizon’s Chinese immersion program or enroll them in the school’s standard English program. Stacy was intrigued by immersion, but she was also nervous, particularly about Justin, who sometimes struggled in school.

Justin Steiner works on his Mandarin homework. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Justin Steiner works on his Chinese homework. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

“I was a little concerned about him not having the foundation they get in first grade,” she says. “I thought that adding a language to that would be a challenge. So there was a lot of angst over that at the beginning.”

In the end, Stacy chose immersion. The first day, Justin says, he expected his instructor to teach Chinese “the normal way”: by saying something in Chinese and then telling the class what the words meant in English. But when they went into class, “She [couldn't] talk any English — only Chinese!” he says. “And so I was like, ‘OK, how do we do this? This is going to be so hard.’”

Stacy says that she worried through the whole first month of classes about how her boys were doing, immersed in a language they had never heard before. That changed at the first parent-teacher conference.

Stacy pulls out an iPad to show a recording she made of the meeting. On the screen, Justin sits with his teacher, reading from a sheet of Chinese characters. “Justin wasn’t reading English that fast last year,” Stacy marvels. “I was warned ahead of time that I would be surprised at how much they’d learned. But nothing really prepares you for that.”

Last year, Justin struggled in school. This year, he’s making A’s.

I’ve always known that Justin is very smart,” says Stacy. “I just worried that others wouldn’t know that he was very smart or that he wouldn’t know that he was very smart. But I don’t worry about that anymore. ”

She says the boys’ success learning Mandarin Chinese has changed the way she pictures their future.

A visiting Mandarin teacher works with Stacy Steiner and her two boys, Justin and Tiger, on Mandarin homework. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

A visiting Mandarin teacher works with Stacy Steiner and her two boys, Justin and Tiger, on Mandarin homework. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

“It has absolutely broadened my plans for my children,” she says. “I’m excited to see what they do with it. Maybe they’ll wave to me from the top some time.”

Howard Stephenson, the state senator who brought immersion education to Utah, says it’s moments like this that make the program worth it. He says he can’t understand why more states don’t implement immersion. The program costs Utah about $100 per child per year — more bang for the buck, Stephenson says, than any education program he’s seen before.

“There are few programs in education that move the needle in any way that cost so little,” he says. “I mean, usually we’re talking millions and millions of dollars to do anything meaningful in education. This is a no-brainer, for lack of a better word. It’s a bargain.”

The rest of the country

Immersion education is growing in the rest of the country. California and Minnesota have long been leaders in immersion, and Delaware recently implemented a new program modeled after Utah’s. According to the most recent numbers from the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), immersion education has been steadily increasing in the United States since the 1970s. In 2011, CAL counted almost 450 immersion programs across the country. Today, that number is almost certainly higher, as Utah in particular adds schools to its statewide program.

Desks in a Chinese immersion classroom. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Desks in a Chinese immersion classroom. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

But language education in general is actually declining across the country, especially in the lower grades. Between 1997 and 2008, the percentage of elementary schools offering foreign language instruction dropped from 31 percent to 25 percent. And the numbers are even more striking when you consider only public schools, where the percentage of elementary institutions offering language education dropped from 24 percent to 15 percent over the same period.

Numbers like these make Gregg Roberts, Utah’s dual language coordinator, irate.

“What are you thinking?” he says. “Why are you staying monolingual? Why do you think this will benefit your students in the 21st century? Why would you not be offering this benefit to your students?”

Episode: The Science of Smart