Students learning two languages from birth, or anytime thereafter, develop new neural networks or a ‘bilingual brain map’ which confer distinct advantages to the learner throughout a lifetime.
Brain studies of dual language learners (DLLs) highlight the additional regions in the brain which engage in dual language learning that are not evident in monolingual language learners. DLLs tap bilateral areas of the brain which enhance their cognitive abilities, accelerate comprehension and strengthen executive function skills such as delayed gratification, long-term memory, and multi-tasking. Although the dual language learning process is universal, how and when learners express what they know solely in a specific language may fluctuate. DLLs have a more expansive neural repertoire from which to draw because they access two language systems simultaneously. First, a dual language architecture or bilingual brain map is developed, followed by the ability to access and use its interconnective power to comprehend at a deeper level and demonstrate understanding in either or both languages. Using multiple languages to convey meaning is the brain’s superhighway for thinking and communicating. This is translanguaging.
Translanguaging is an internal linguistic construct which relies on two languages for broader understanding and expression. A student using two languages to express an idea is drawing on information from a dual language system to retrieve knowledge and communicate understanding.
Dr. Anna M. Beres at Bangor University is the first quantitative neuroscientist to conduct an extensive study on the neural basis of translanguaging by examining English/Welsh dual language development in ‘proficient’ bilingual learners (2012). The project explored how the brain receives information in one language and expresses it in another.” (1)
Dr. Beres and her team discovered that bilinguals who are proficient in two languages utilize the cognitive and linguistic resources from both languages without interfering with or impeding either. Bilinguals acquiring two languages simultaneously as in balanced dual language programs extrapolate ideas, words, phrases and concepts using a combination of both languages. It is not a language deficiency but an added cognitive benefit since proficient bilinguals demonstrate increased working memory. They remember and use words, ideas and information longer than individuals who are not proficient bilinguals.
Ofelia García, who popularized the term globally, emphasizes that translanguaging is a strategy when two or more languages are used in a flexible way in order to make sense of the world. She argues that bilingualism is not compartmentalized or linear but flexible, dynamic, and fluid (García, 2015). (2)
In other words, the ability to think and communicate using two or more languages allows learners to experiment, acquire knowledge and demonstrate what they know and can do in a more individualized, multi-modal manner. The process naturally encourages learning, reduces barriers, changes expectations, develops collaborative educational environments, embraces linguistic and cultural differences, supports ongoing equal access to ideas, keeps the brain active and engaged, and motivates the learner.
Julia is a middle school student who arrived in the United States proficient in her primary language. She is assigned to a dual language classroom where there are two teachers each proficient in their respective language, English and Spanish. The goal of this program is full bilingualism and biliteracy. The teachers have organized an open, highly communicative, flexible learning environment to encourage exploration. They rely on project-based learning to achieve each learners’ linguistic and academic goals. The students, who work collaboratively, are assigned to heterogenous, linguistically multi-level teams. The expected assignment outcome, which is based on grade-level academic and language standards, is clearly stated, but how students demonstrate results is individualized. Everyone participates!
Julia’s team which combines bilingually proficient students with emergent dual language learners, designs a framework for participation which offers maximum input and output for each member. Students are learning the material and language from one another along with direct and explicit classroom instruction. Julia who is new to the school, the team and a new language writes what she learns about the project in her primary language and with the help of team members explores writing and speaking the assignment outcomes in her second language. She uses both languages to convey meaning: what she has learned, knows and understands about the project or concepts presented throughout the project. To the surprise of her teachers, she clearly comprehends the lesson and accurately expresses her understanding in her primary language while displaying her linguistic strengths and challenges in her second language. She combines both languages to convey meaning. Her team members understand and support her learning while the teachers, who are expert not only in the content but in their respective language, gauge and guide her bilingual linguistic ability. Everyone wins!
Obviously, several roadblocks become immediately apparent in this example. First, how do we find, certify and employ the number of linguistically expert teachers needed to administer such a program. Second, what type of valid assessments need to be developed to provide granular, discreet information which support students learning academic content in two languages and inform instruction. Third, new language and academic standards based on brain research must be developed which specifically address the complex dual nature of learning content in two languages, simultaneously. Finally, accountability systems need to be redesigned to incorporate on a practical and theoretical level more comprehensive ways of measuring progress toward full dual language proficiency in reading, writing, speaking and listening.
Of course, this is a tall order for educators, experts, assessment developers, administrators and parents. However, does education in the United States have a choice any longer? With the advent of empirical science in education similar to research in the medical field, we are at the point in education where findings from neuroscience can no longer be ignored.
The stated national goal in education is for every student to attain their highest potential. Twenty years of education reform has failed especially for dual language learners. However, we now have a body of education evidence-based research and neuroscience that identifies what it means and how to rethink the process of ‘teaching and learning’. At the core of this research is language/s and its beneficial impact on life-long learning, individual success and quality of life. It is imperative to teach the way the brain learns, processes information, acquires knowledge and thinks, which includes the profound influence of dual language development regardless of how it is expressed—translanguaging! Together, let’s design a new approach to 21st century education.
The Time to Act is NOW!
1) Bares, Anna M. Translanguaging as a Strategy to Boost Human Learning. Bangor University, PhD BeresAnna 2015.pdf Published online: 30 March 2015 https://doi.org/10.1075/ttmc.1.1.05ber
2) Garcia, Ofelia, Otheguy, Ricardo, García, Ofelia & Reid, Wallis (2015). Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review, 6(3), 281-307.