President Barack Obama has unveiled a federal BRAIN initiative which he describes as “a bold new research effort to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.”
The initiative is a worthy national undertaking that can help us understand and treat brain disorders. It can, as the President argues, serve as a stimulus for economic growth through innovation similar to that produced by the federal “genome project.”
I agree with the President that it “will open new doors to understanding how brain function is linked to human behavior and learning.” I am skeptical, however, that this understanding will improve education or promote the kinds of instruction which research proves to be most beneficial for learning, thinking and doing.
My skepticism is grounded in the inexplicable failure of the Obama Administration under Education Secretary Arne Duncan to present and support “dual language” education as a core K-12 educational program. For more than a decade, neuroscience has documented the cognitive benefits which accrue from it.
These benefits extend far beyond the accepted economic and social advantages associated with bilingualism and are often translated from the complex terminology of neuro-medical research journals into simple news headlines like “Bilingual Brains Are Better.”
Cognitive health and dual language education
Hard science, including autopsies and x-rays, has shown that people who are bilingual or multilingual, especially from youth, have increased “grey matter,” the raw material of the human intellect. More recently, psychological research employing functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) which allows scientists to see the brain at work has shown that bilingualism increases the neurological activity associated with thinking — the brain’s “clock speed,” if you will.
Research has also shown that multilingual people have greater problem-solving ability than their monolingual peers as well as greater “executive function,” multi-tasking capability, higher levels of creativity and critical thinking.
Finally, and this goes directly to President Obama’s interest in treating Alzheimer’s, is that dual or multiple language learning has been proven to delay the onset of age-related dementia. It may actually prevent individuals from falling victim to Alzheimer’s disease.
These “brain-based” research findings should have caused Education Secretary Duncan to promote vigorously dual language and foreign language instructional programs. Just as increased exercise is good for children’s physical health, so also is multiple language learning beneficial to their mental fitness, functioning and well-being.
Secretary Duncan has been a fervent supporter of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to combat childhood obesity through diet and exercise. Duncan has done nothing, however, to advance the views President Obama expressed during the 2008 campaign on the importance of language education and development.
At a May 28, 2008 town-hall campaign rally in Thornton, Colorado, then-Senator Obama was asked for his views on bilingual education. His answer was powerful and unequivocal.
“Understand,” he said, “that my starting principle is everybody should be bilingual or everybody should be trilingual. We as a society do a really bad job teaching foreign languages, and it is costing us when it comes to being competitive in a global marketplace.”
Despite virtually unlimited possibilities, the Secretary has never translated the President’s powerful sentiments into policy or practice. The $100 billion education component of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) made $10 billion in new funding available for Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA), $12.2 billion of new funding available for the Individuals with Disability Act and almost $5 billion for the administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative. Not a dollar of the ARRA funds, however, was devoted to ESEA Title III programs for the nation’s 5-plus million English Learners and not a dime for federal foreign language education programs.
Nor did Secretary Duncan’s 2011 “Blueprint for ESEA Reauthorization” propose to expand the narrow “English-only acquisition” focus of the ESEA. Title III needs to promote dual language development for English Learners and, in two-way programs, for their monolingual English peers.
Full details are yet to be developed. I will remain suspicious that the initiative will improve education and learning until I see some proof that the Secretary is willing to push brain-research-proven dual language education.
David Rogers is executive director of Dual Language Education of New Mexico. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.