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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power

In an interconnected world, speaking more than one language is becoming increasingly common. Approximately one-fifth of Americans speak a non-English language at home, and globally, as many as two-thirds of children are brought up bilingual.
Research suggests that the growing numbers of bilingual speakers may have an advantage that goes beyond communication: It turns out that being bilingual is also good for your brain.
Judy and Paul Szentkiralyi both grew up bilingual in the U.S., speaking Hungarian with their families and English with their peers. When they first started dating, they spoke English with each other.
But they knew they wanted to raise their children speaking both languages, so when things turned serious they did something unusual — they decided to switch to Hungarian.
Today, Hungarian is the primary language the Szentkiralyis use at home. Their two daughters — Hannah, 14, and Julia, 8 — speak both languages fluently, and without any accent. But they both heard only Hungarian from mom and dad until the age of 3 or 4, when they started school.
"When she did go to preschool that accent was very thick – she counted like Vun, two, tree," said Judy Szentkiralyi, recalling Hanna's early experience with English. "And by the time four or five months went by, it was totally gone."
Dispelling Confusion Around Bilingualism
The Szentkiralyis say that most people were supportive, but not everyone. Paul recounts an uncomfortable confrontation Judy once had in the local grocery store.
"I remember one time you came home and you said this one lady was like, 'When is she going to learn English?' And it was like, 'Well, when she goes to school she'll learn English,'" he said.
For a bilingual who really has two good languages that they use, both of them are always active.
"People would often say, 'Well, won't they get confused?" added Judy. "And I would have to explain, 'Well, no, it wasn't confusing for us.'"
The idea that children exposed to two languages from birth become confused or that they fall behind monolingual children is a common misconception, says Janet Werker, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who studies language acquisition in bilingual babies.
"Growing up bilingual is just as natural as growing up monolingual," said Werker, whose own research indicates babies of bilingual mothers can distinguish between languages even hours after birth.
"There is absolutely no evidence that bilingual acquisition leads to confusion, and there is no evidence that bilingual acquisition leads to delay," she said.
Werker and other researchers say the evidence to the contrary is actually quite strong. Instead of holding you back, being bilingual, they say, may actually be good for you.
Tuning In To The Right Signal
Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist from York University in Toronto, says the reason lies in the way the bilingual mind uses language.
"We don't really know very much in psychology," said Bialystok. "But the one thing that has been so overwhelmingly proven, that I can say with great certainty, is this: For a bilingual who really has two good languages that they use, both of them are always active."
In other words, no matter what language a person is speaking at the moment, both languages are active in the brain.
"The evidence is very dramatic. Even if you are in a context that is utterly monolingual, where you think there is absolutely no reason to think about Chinese or Spanish or French, it is part of the activated network that's going on in your brain," she said.
This means that bilinguals have to do something that monolinguals don't do — they have to keep the two languages separate. Bialystok likens it to tuning into the right signal on the radio or television: The brain has to keep the two channels separate and pay attention to only one.
"The brain has a perfectly good system whose job it is to do just that — it's the executive control system. It focuses attention on what's important and ignores distraction. Therefore, for a bilingual, the executive control system is used in every sentence you utter. That's what makes it strong," said Bialystok.
Remodeling The Brain?
Constantly engaging this executive control function is a form of mental exercise, explains Bialystok, and some researchers, including herself, believe that this can be beneficial for the brain. Bilingual speakers have been shown to perform better on a variety of cognitive tasks, and one study Bialistok did found that dementia set in four to five years later in people who spent their lives speaking two languages instead of one.
"They can get a little extra mileage from these cognitive networks because they have been enhanced throughout life," said Bialystok.
And the advantages of bilingualism may be due to more than just "mental fitness." Bialystok says there's some preliminary evidence that being bilingual may physically remodel parts of the brain. It's something researchers are only beginning to look into, but she says there is reason to believe that speaking a second language may lead to important changes in brain structure as well.

How The Shuttle Program Advanced Technology

On the eve of the space shuttle's penultimate flight, NPR's Melissa Block talks with Roger Launius, senior curator for space history at the Air and Space Museum, about what scientific benefits we've seen from the shuttle program. To hear a story and his observations, click here to go to NPR's All Things Considered.

Once Again, Just What IS The Future Of Music?

The four who tried to write and record eight songs in eight hours: Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, Damian Kulash and Neil Gaiman.

The Berklee College of Music is holding a conference on the future of music industry - yes another one. What makes this interesting is that it's being held by a school that's set to graduate a class destined for this very industry. High-level representatives from Interscope, Tommy Boy, Warner Music and other labels are there defending their industry. And, as a nod to how that industry has changed, Damian Kulash, Ben FoldsAmanda Palmer, and Neil Gaiman locked themselves in a studio for 12 hours and came up with six new songs — with input from from their fans (who were watching live online) via Twitter.

Emily Elbert - Thriller (acoustic Michael Jackson cover - free mp3)

Corporations win battle limiting your right to sue

If you take a job at a fast-food restaurant or a big-box retailer, if you sign up for a credit card or a cell phone, chances are you're going to be signing away your right to bring a class action.
The U.S. Supreme Court has handed corporations a major victory. By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled Wednesday that companies can enforce contracts that bar consumers and employees from banding together to bring class action suits.
Ever read that long cell phone contract you signed when you enrolled for service? Well, look again. It likely has a provision requiring all disputes to be resolved by arbitration and barring consumers from banding together in a class action. Your credit card agreement, your cable agreement and maybe even your employment agreement have similar clauses.
Many states have ruled such contracts illegal and unenforceable, among them California. In Wednesday's case, a California couple sued on behalf of themselves and others who were charged $30.22 in sales tax for the supposedly free phone they got when signed up for service with AT&T Mobility. If they won, the class could potentially win millions of dollars versus the small amount — possibly only $30.22 — that each person would win in an individual arbitration. 
But on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal arbitration law enacted to encourage arbitration trumps the state law, effectively blocking consumers from bringing their claims as a group.

Green Bag Lecture Series May 5