Investigation of cognitive benefits of bilingualism – Sardinian and Scottish v national languages of Italian and English

The International Journal of bilingualism

has just produced its report Bilingualism in Sardinia and Scotland: Exploring the cognitive benefits of speaking a ‘minority’ language

you can get access to it here

The research reports on a study investigating the cognitive benefits of bilingualism in children who speak the minority languages of Sardinian and Scottish Gaelic, in addition to their respective ‘national’ languages of Italian and English. One hundred and twenty-one children, both bilingual and monolingual, were administered a series of standardised cognitive ability tests targeted at the four areas that have been previously shown to be advantageous to bilingual children in the literature, namely, cognitive control, problem-solving ability, metalinguistic awareness and working memory. The bilingual children significantly outperformed the monolingual children in two of the four sub-tests, and the Scottish children significantly outperformed the Sardinian children in one of the sub-tests. The differences found were largely due to the superior performance of the Scottish bilingual children who receive a formal bilingual education, in contrast to the Sardinian bilingual children who mostly only speak the minority language at home. The implications of the results are discussed.

Greater variety in second or third languages would encourage Puerto Rican citizens to look past the United States for opportunities

Sometimes it is good to have a different perspective which this story does. Puerto Rico is currently undergoing  a challenge wondering whether one, two or more languages is more important for a 21st Century curriculum for its children.  There are many different perspectives a few of which can be read about here.  I was interested that there is a  perceived need if they want their youngsters to be able to work in the world market maybe English and Chinese or Thai could be alternatives that need thinking about.

you can read more at:

here are a few snippets

Fortuño’s Plan For English Proficiency In Puerto Rico – Analysis

By Isaiah Marcano

With an electoral season approaching, the islands comprising Puerto Rico have once more become the center of debate and conflict. Recently, the current Governor of Puerto Rico and statehood advocate Luis Fortuño introduced a mandatory bilingual public-education program for all students on the islands. The initiative, called “Generation Bilingual,” emphasizes the importance of English proficiency among the islanders. Ultimately, his ambitious program aims to graduate a 100 percent English-Spanish bilingual class from secondary schools by 2022.(1) Given the economic upheaval and rise in violent crime on the island, Fortuño’s proposition is rather timely. The unemployment rate of roughly 14.2 percent has driven the local population to search for a desperate solution to its lingual and other woes.

Not all Puerto Ricans are convinced of the governor’s concern for their wellbeing, although bilingualism, especially fluency in English, is widely considered an essential asset for success in the globalized world. Though English is an official language of Puerto Rico and roughly 30 percent of the population has a relative command of the language, American culture and language remain alien for much of Puerto Rico’s Spanish-speaking majority.(5) Fortuño’s program of bilingual education has often been described as a step toward the further Americanization of the islands, although it remains in its nascent stages.(6) To this end, Secretary of Education Edward Moreno recently announced that American English will become the language of instruction in 31 of the islands’ public schools. More specifically, all subjects other than Puerto Rican history and Spanish language classes are to be taught in English.(7)

Moreover, the implementation of a mandatory English-Spanish bilingual program would further undermine the islands’ already substandard Spanish language education system. Exposing children to bilingual instruction prior to developing a command of the original mother tongue has definitive risks in the long run. Perhaps the most relevant includes a lack of mastery in Spanish or related subjects. Many argue that the government ought to address these flaws in the quality of education in Spanish prior to enacting any drastic changes. At this point, Fortuño’s plans might aggravate the shortcomings of the Puerto Rican public education system.(9) Additionally, research has shown that a command of the vernacular actually facilitates second-language learning to a great extent.(10)

Fortuño’s justifications revolve around the growing emphasis on English as an international language. These motives are untenable, however, given the growth of many states outside of the Anglo-sphere. Some increasingly useful languages include Mandarin, Hindi, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, and French. Spanish has also seen a definitive rise in relevance as an international language.(11) Greater variety in second or third languages would encourage Puerto Rican citizens to look past the United States for opportunities and expedite the development of crucial ties with the rest of the world.

As the debate over Puerto Rico’s sovereignty hangs in the balance and the election for governor rapidly approaches, the world will watch to see which direction Puerto Ricans decide to take. Fortuño’s experiment is underway and islanders will have to soon determine whether or not a predominantly English language curriculum will address the archipelago’s unsettled woes of disproportionate unemployment rates and violent drug-related crime.

As an old island saying goes, “Lo que no conviene, no viene:” If it doesn’t help, it has to go.



Literacy EAL – Reading Guide

Reading allows us to be active and think about what the person has written. We then have to decode the words and sentences to make sure that we have understood what the writer intended.

Straight away you can see that the EAL learner needs to have the following skills to:

  1. read the words correctly
  2. understand the construction of the sentence
  3. interpret what that string of words in that formation means to the rest of the population
  4. create an accurate picture of what that means where description is used to describe a situation, object or feeling

We are asking a lot of a monolingual but for a bilingual or multilingual child this becomes more difficult.

Add this to the four types of knowledge that the reader needs:

  1. Phonic  awareness (what each letter sounds like)
  2. Grammatical knowledge (Knowledge of sentence structure and the symbols we use to demonstrate this… such as !, ?, ” “)
  3. Knowledge of context (know about the culture, world especially of the area where they are learning, and topic)
  4. Word recognition and graphic knowledge (what the sounds look like when in written form)

In real life in the classroom this can be presented as:

  1. Difficulty decoding words
  2. Not understanding the vocabulary
  3. Confusion of words
  4. Not understanding something, for example, that the writing may be a joke or irony
  5. Having no background cultural information so it may be difficult to reach the true meaning easily.

Read for Meaning

In order to support this in the classroom if we can encourage reading for meaning that will encourage the EAL reader to take a risk by guessing a meaning to make accessing the text easier. If the book needs cultural background, input this knowledge beforehand as a precursor to allow even greater understanding when the reader eventually reads the book.


Support this further by pre-teaching any sentences with an idiom included such as if the book refers to a senior moment – pre teach the learner that this means a memory lapse or a momentary confusion in someone who is no longer young is a senior moment.

More idioms

lose heart

Make the grade

Step up a gear

It’s raining cats and dogs.

Finally look at the reading environment

  1. Have bilingual books in the target language to support both the learning language and continue to support their first language
  2. Have a resource box with texts at different challenge levels and interests
  3. Where possible increase the versions available by having a simplified version.
  4. Ensure access to dictionaries or translation software to develop their language acquisition.

Have you any good examples you would like to share with us?

Why Chinese immigrants can struggle with English fluency

“Sometimes, people are just afraid to make mistakes and decide not to speak. We have to learn not to be afraid to embarrass and humiliate ourselves.”

Derwing said English-language training for immigrants must focus more on listening, speaking and pronunciation skills, as well as the so-called soft skill of engaging in casual conversation.

How often have we heard other teachers say this of our children in schools? Zhenyong Li gives a great account of the difficulties he finds particularly with small talk.  I am not sure that the children find some of these problems mainly because they pick up the social play ground talk quite easily, but have a problem with academic language.

The study by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy followed 25 immigrants each from Mandarin and Slavic groups, and assessed their listening and speaking skills at years 1, 2 and 7

There are observations to be thought about here not least why do they struggle so much more than the Slovak group, and what can we as teachers do to improve this.  Also this is surprising as those English speakers learning Mandarin seem to be really well.  A school in Canton Cardiff has achieved the success of many of its students passing exams for  adults to a really high level.

Read the rest here:–why-chinese-immigrants-struggle-with-english-fluency

Zhenyong Li has no trouble speaking English in his engineering jargon, but the Chinese immigrant says it can still be challenging to carry on small talk.

And yet, casual conversation with native speakers around the water cooler is crucial to language development — and social integration — for those whose mother tongue is something else, especially Mandarin.

A new study found the Mandarin-speaking immigrants it tracked had made “no significant progress” in their English accent, fluency and comprehensibility seven years after their arrival here, compared with their Slavic-language (Russian and Ukrainian) speaking counterparts.

The study by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy followed 25 immigrants each from Mandarin and Slavic groups, and assessed their listening and speaking skills at years 1, 2 and 7.

“Mandarin-speakers over time did not get much easier to understand when native listeners heard them speak,” said University of Alberta educational psychology professor Tracey Derwing, who co-authored the study with NorQuest College language instructor Erin Waugh.

“They made very little progress in their pronunciation and fluency. They still had many pauses and hesitation.”

Participants in the study — all possessing the same overall language proficiency, well-educated and with similar language training here — were shown pictures and asked to describe them in their own words, while being evaluated by 30 listeners to eliminate any bias or subjectivity.

Researchers also found the Mandarin speakers had had significantly fewer conversations of 10 minutes or more with native and non-native English speakers than did the Slavic participants.

The Mandarin speakers were, as a whole, more reluctant to initiate conversation and appeared to be less aware of current local events than the Slavic speakers.

The Slavic speakers, as a group, the report said, were more assertive and more deliberate in their effort to learn English. They also had an advantage because of interests shared with the larger community (ice hockey, for example), which helped with conversations.

Li, who came here from Shanghai in 1998, said Mainland Chinese learn their English from textbooks through reading and writing, and have no opportunity to drill their listening and speaking skills outside the classroom.

“If you cannot listen or speak proper English, you feel discouraged to participate in a conversation because you are afraid others don’t understand you,” said Li, 52, who has a master’s degree in engineering from the California Institute of Technology and is a manager of a Markham consulting firm.

The Chinese Professionals Association of Canada in Toronto has introduced several programs to address the language gap, which focus on pronunciation and “soft skills” in communication.

“It’s vital to be able to carry small talk,” said its president, Hugh Zhao, who moved here from Shenyang in 1989. “Small talk leads to common understanding and other big topics. It’s not enough just to talk about the weather in Canada.”

Zhao, a computing manager at the University of Toronto, said the Chinese language is very different from the English alphabet, and so are the cultures attached to those language.

Also, silence, which for the Chinese is a virtue reflecting humbleness, is not valued in the West, where people tend to appreciate participation and outspokenness.

“(Mainland) Chinese students are not active in class because, if they understand it, they don’t want to show off. And if they do not understand something, they don’t want to ask and show their ignorance,” Zhao said.

“Sometimes, people are just afraid to make mistakes and decide not to speak. We have to learn not to be afraid to embarrass and humiliate ourselves.”

Derwing said English-language training for immigrants must focus more on listening, speaking and pronunciation skills, as well as the so-called soft skill of engaging in casual conversation.

“Communication is a two-way street. The burden of communication should not be on immigrants’ shoulders only,” she added. “Canadians should not just zone out or shut down when they hear somebody speak with an accent.”

Umeboshi – What are they? – Japan

Following on the Japanese thread from this week I came across this article from the Japanese Times which describes a cooking technique and also gives a recipe at the very end…I was very intrigued by the word itself Umeboshi so was surprised to see it linked to culinary terms as I thought it was perhaps something more geographical … my Japanese sadly is getting no better.  I do love food though especially something that is different from my cultural food experiences so thought I would share this and the history behind it.

Below is the article:

Umeboshi: perfect in any culinary pickle

Special to The Japan Times

Japanese cuisine has more than its share of acquired tastes, and umeboshi are near the top of the list. Intensely sour and salty, these traditional tsukemono (pickles) are prepared over several weeks, starting in June when the fruits of the ume tree are ripe, and finishing up in July under the hot midsummer sun. Ume are related to plums and apricots.

Making enough umeboshi to last the rest of the year was a task in most Japanese households for hundreds of years. Both of my grandmothers made a batch faithfully every summer, each tasting entirely different from the other. My paternal grandmother made pale, moist ones that were more sour than salty, and my maternal grandmother made umeboshi that were so salty that the surface glistened with crystals.

They both made their umeboshi in similar ways, but the differences came from the amount of salt used and how the fruit was handled. My father’s mother lived in a small house in central Tokyo and did not have a lot of room to spread out her umeboshi, so she kept the drying (hoshi) phase short, the salt fairly low, and disinfected her pots with shōchū liquor to ward off mold. My mother’s mother lived in a small town and had the space to give her umeboshi lots of sun and air and relied solely on salt and the natural acidity of the ume to preserve them. Her umeboshi were as wrinkled and brown as her well-worn gardener’s hands.

It’s the latter ones I remember most fondly despite their intense saltiness, because they are so interwoven with my childhood memories of summer. Every August my mother would participate in the age-old custom of sato-gaeri — going back to the small town where she grew up, offspring in tow, for a week or two’s holiday. When us kids got back home every late afternoon, exhausted and soaked in sweat from running around wild all day, our grandmother would give us an umeboshi each.

This was in the days when people used to believe (erroneously, as it turns out) that one needed to take in extra salt during the brutally hot and humid summer; for my grandmother, making her grandchildren eat her umeboshi was her way of ensuring that we stayed healthy. Even now when I bite into an umeboshi, memories come flooding back of sitting on the porch with my cousins, mouth puckering, knowing that I’d soon be rewarded with a tall, icy glass of mugi-cha (barley tea), and maybe some watermelon that had been chilling all day in the well.

The first written records of umeboshi appear as early as the year 200. Initially it was ume-su (ume vinegar), the sour-salty liquid byproduct of the umeboshi-making process, that was prized. The liquid was used as an antiseptic on wounds, as well as to clean and chelate metal items such as bronze mirrors and temple bells. (Ume-su was widely used as an antiseptic well into the 20th century, until more modern antiseptics became available.) In later times, both the pickled fruit and the vinegar were used to treat various ailments, especially of the stomach.

Umeboshi and ume-su were especially cherished in times of war. During the medieval Warring States period (1467-1573), they were valued for their long shelf life, and warlords across the land ordered the planting of bairin (ume groves). Umeboshi were thought to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, ward off food poisoning, and more.

These beliefs continued even into the 20th century, when soldiers carried bundles of umeboshi with them to the front. In the early Showa Era (1926-1989), the humble umeboshi became part of a national patriotic symbol: the hinomaru bentō, consisting of a rectangular bed of plain white rice with a single umeboshi in the middle, resembling the Japanese flag.

Nowadays, umeboshi can be bought in department-store food halls, supermarkets, convenience stores and even ¥100 shops. They range widely in price and quality; cheap umeboshi with artificial flavors are rather nasty, but at the high end they are a gourmet treat.

Traditionally, the best umeboshi come from Wakayama Prefecture, which was called the Kishu Domain during the Edo Period (1603-1867). It was mainly in this region, and during this time, that umeboshi pickled with red shiso (perilla) leaves came into being. These reddish-brown to bright purple-red delights are what most people consider to be the quintessential umeboshi. In recent years, though, umeboshi that are are less salty and marinated in dashi stock (which adds lots of umami) have gained popularity. There are also very low-salt umeboshi that still retain the sweetness of the fruit.

Are umeboshi good for you? Probably so — in moderation. The main “good” ingredient in umeboshi and ume-su is citric acid, which is a natural preservative and conservative, as well as an appetite inducer. White onigiri (rice balls) made with umeboshi filling keep for a longer time than onigiri made with other fillings, and a traditional dish to eat when you’re sick is some plain rice gruel flavored with umeboshi. However, the high salt content is not that good for you, so it’s probably best not to have more than a couple at a time.

Where umeboshi really shine is in the kitchen. Think of them as flavoring agents or condiments rather than pickles; start by using just a little in sauces or on plain rice and so on. Add an umeboshi to a marinade for meat, or put one in the poaching liquid when you poach a chicken for a subtle flavor.

You may find that once you get used to them, you become addicted to their salty-sourness. The first time my husband, who’s Swiss, popped one in his mouth, he almost spat it out in horror, but now he loves them even more than I do. One of his favorite quick lunches is pitted and chopped umeboshi, butter, a drizzle of soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds tossed with freshly cooked pasta. (I like to add a dash of Tabasco.)

The umeboshi section of a department-store food hall can be rather overwhelming, especially during the midsummer and yearend gift giving seasons. Besides the pickled fruit themselves, you can also find a variety of ume-su, ume paste (neri-ume) and umeboshi-based sauces.

Traditionally made umeboshi can keep for years, even decades, and if they do go bad (they turn black) it’s thought to be a very bad omen. However, modern low-salt umeboshi, especially ones marinated in dashi stock, do not keep so well, and must be kept refrigerated and eaten before the best-by date.

Not that many people make their own umeboshi these days, but some still keep up the tradition, including my mother. Hers are somewhere in between the ones by my two grandmothers — a bright reddish brown, somewhat dried but still moist and smooth, salty yet not overwhelming. To me, they are perfection.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at and about Japanese cooking and more at
Recipe: Ume-dashi dressing or dipping sauceThis refreshing and versatile sauce can be used as a salad dressing or as a dipping sauce for cold noodles. I make the sauce without any oil, and add a little oil before using it as a dressing. The oil helps the sauce to cling to the ingredients in a salad. If you don’t want to make dashi stock from scratch, use 1½ teaspoons of dashi granules dissolved into 400 ml of water instead.

Makes about 400 ml

Water — 400 ml

Dry konbu seaweed — 1 10-cm piece

Red shiso-type umeboshi — 4 large

Katsuobushi (bonito flakes) — ½ cup (1 small handful)

Sake — 1 tsp

Mirin — 1 tsp

Light soy sauce — 1 tsp

Ume-su — 2 tbsp

Prepare the dashi stock by steeping the konbu seaweed in the water for 20 minutes, then bringing to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer.

While the konbu seaweed is steeping, pit the umeboshi and chop the flesh finely until it becomes a paste.

Put the stones into the dashi stock and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the mirin and sake, and simmer an additional 5 minutes. Add the bonito flakes. Turn off the heat, and leave until cooled down to lukewarm. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve.

Add the soy sauce, chopped umeboshi and ume-su. Mix well. Let cool, and store in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator until ready to use. It will keep for a couple of weeks.

To use as a salad dressing, mix 2 tablespoons of the sauce with  ½ tablespoon of a light-flavored vegetable or olive oil. The best method is to put both in a small glass jar with a lid (not the one you store the sauce in) and shake vigorously.

You can also use the sauce straight up as a dipping sauce for cold udon or hiyamugi noodles; it makes an interesting change from regular noodle dipping sauce. If the sauce is too salty as-is, dilute it with a little water. Add thinly sliced myōga ginger, finely chopped green onion and toasted sesame seeds as garnish.


With thanks to

I’m not bilingual; I’m not fluent in all my languages – Who is bilingual?

This is an interesting piece of research showing how many people do not even know they are bilingual and the authors definition of a bilingual. What do you think of the definition?

Life as a Bilingual

The reality of living with two (or more) languages by Francois Grosjean, Ph.D.

Who is Bilingual?How one describes bilinguals has changed over time.

Published on October 21, 2010 by Francois Grosjean, Ph.D. in Life as a Bilingual

“No, I’m not bilingual; I’m not fluent in all my languages”; “I don’t consider myself bilingual since I don’t know how to write my other language”; “I didn’t grow up with two languages, so I’m not bilingual”; “I have an accent in Spanish so I can’t be considered bilingual” …..

I have heard such remarks repeatedly and I have always been dismayed that so many bilinguals depreciate their language skills.

The main reason is that the criterion of how fluent bilinguals are in their languages has long been dominant in how we characterize them. Even some linguists have put it forward as the defining characteristic. Hence, the American linguist, Leonard Bloomfield, stated that bilingualism is the native-like control of two languages.

The “real” bilingual has long been seen as the one who is equally, and fully, fluent in two languages. He or she is the “ideal”, the “true”, the “balanced”, the “perfect” bilingual. All the others – in fact, the vast majority of bilinguals – are “not really” bilingual or are “special types” of bilinguals.

This two-monolinguals-in-one-person view has been assumed and amplified by many  bilinguals themselves who either criticize their own language competence, or strive to reach monolingual norms, or even hide their knowledge of their weaker language(s).

If one were to count as bilingual only those people who pass as complete monolinguals in each of their languages (they are a rarity), one would be left with no label for the vast majority of people who use two or more languages regularly but who do not have native-like fluency in each. The reason they don’t is quite simply that bilinguals do not need to be equally competent in all of their languages. They usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people.

One of the fathers of bilingualism research, Uriel Weinreich, a linguist in the second part of the 20th century, recognized this and proposed, along with Canadian linguist William Mackey, a more realistic definition of bilingualism – the alternate use of two or more languages.

My own definition is very similar: bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives.

This other way of looking at bilinguals allows one to include people ranging from the professional interpreter who is fluent in two languages all the way to the established immigrant who speaks the host country’s language but who may not be able to read or write it. In between we find the bilingual child who interacts with her parents in one language and with her friends in another, the scientist who reads and writes articles in a second language (but who rarely speaks it), the member of a linguistic minority who uses the minority language at home only and the majority language in all other domains of life, the Deaf person who uses sign language with her friends but uses the written form of the spoken language with a hearing person, and so on. Despite the great diversity that exists between these people, they all lead their lives with more than one language.

The more recent and more realistic view of bilingualism has allowed many people who live  with two or more languages to accept who they are – bilingual, quite simply. (See here for some feedback on  what it is like to be bilingual).


Reference: “Describing bilinguals”. Chapter 2 of Grosjean, François (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


“Life as a bilingual” posts by content area:

François Grosjean’s website:

DfE Primary Curriculum Review further details – UK

On Facebook the DfE have given some examples and are asking questions. Here is the link:

The more we understand about people the less fearful we become – Maori Week

I believe that the more we understand about people and their cultures the less fearful we become. After my last blog I got really interested in the Maori week so thought I would share some Maori words with you, as well as some information about the language itself.

Māori language is a traditionally oral language. Its written form has developed over the last two centuries. Its role has become more important with the growth of Māori-medium (Māori immersion) education and the regeneration of Māori language.

A standard written form of Māori language continues to be developed.

Tohutō – Macrons

One of the key features of written Māori is the macron. A macron is a small horizontal line placed above a vowel to indicate a long vowel sound e.g. Māori, tohutō (macron), rōpū (group). It is a pronunciation aid and is particularly useful for helping learners of the language become familiar with stress, intonation and emphasis.

The macron is also a spelling convention which in some cases has the effect of changing the meaning of a word e.g.

matua = father
mātua = parents
panga = puzzle
pānga = effect
maro = apron
mārō = hard
ana = cave
anā = there
pahu = bark
pahū = explode



Kia ora
Tēnā koe
Hello (to one person)
Tēnā kōrua
Hello (to two people)
Tēnā koutou
Hello (to three or more people)

Inquiring Question

Kei te pēhea koe?
How are you?


Kei te pai ahau
I’m good
Ka nui te ora
I’m great
Me koe?
And you?


Haere rā
Goodbye (to someone leaving)
E noho rā
Goodbye (to someone staying)
Ka kite anō
See you again
Hei konā
See you later
and finally….
The term tangi or tangihanga describes a Māori approach to the process of grieving for someone who has died. Practices and protocols can differ from tribe to tribe. However, it is a common process that enables people to express their sense of loss, not only for their loved one, but for those who have passed before them.Traditionally, tangihanga were held at marae. Nowadays, tangihanga are also held at private residences and funeral parlours. Tangihanga usually take place over a number of days, beginning when the person passes away and continuing after the burial, until the rituals and ceremonies of grieving are complete.

Before the burial, it is common for the coffin to be left open so mourners can touch, kiss, hug and cry over the tūpāpaku (corpse) to express their grief.

A common belief is that the tūpāpaku should never be left alone after death, so close family members (the whānau pani) stay with the tūpāpaku throughout the tangihanga, supported by older female relatives.

People often travel long distances to attend tangihanga to show their respect for the person who has died and to offer support to the family. It is also common practice to offer a koha, usually money, to the marae or family.

If the tangihanga is at a marae, those who attend are welcomed with pōwhiri  during which speeches are made as if talking directly to the tūpāpaku. This fits with the common belief that the spirit remains with the body until the time of the burial.

If the tūpāpaku has links to a number of tribes or sub tribes, debate may arise between relatives over where the tūpāpaku is to be buried. While talks can be heated and stressful, such debate is a sign of love and respect for the tūpāpaku.

for more information this was my source of inspiration

The more we understand about people the less fearful we become….Liz Foxwell

I am not Scottish but Welsh so feel very much about the preservation of the Gaelic languages hence the interest in this recent article of news about how maths can save a dying languge with the equation to prove it. Now I am not a mathematician by all means but it is very interesting reading.

Though the truism about Inuits having a hundred words for snow is an exaggeration—they have a few dozen, at most—languages really are full of charming quirks that reveal the character of a culture. Dialects of Scottish Gaelic, for instance, traditionally spoken in the Highlands and, later on, in fishing villages, have a great many very specific words for seaweed, as well as names for each of the components of a rabbit snare and a word for an egg that emerges from a hen sans shell.

Unfortunately for those who find these details fascinating, languages are going extinct at an incredible clip—one dies every 14 days—and linguists are rushing around with tape recorders and word lists trying to record at least a fragment of each before they go. As mathematician Anne Kandler of the Santa Fe Institute notes, the only way the old tongues will stick around is if populations themselves decide that there is something of value in them, whether for reasons of patriotism, cultural heritage, or just to lure in some language-curious tourists.

Say you’ve decided your language is worth keeping. Now how do you go about it?

This is an area where mathematicians can help linguists out. Several years ago, Kandler and her colleagues decided to make a mathematical model of the speakers of an endangered language, to provide a kind of test environment for programs that encourage the learning of local languages. They chose Scottish Gaelic as a good test case, because there are more than 100 years of data on the number of speakers and their demographics. The language has had its ups and downs, most notably repeated attempts by English authorities to extinguish it after the Battle of Culloden and the Highland Clearances. But in the last decade especially, there has been a movement to boost the numbers of Gaelic speakers, with Gaelic radio programs and Gaelic weather reports—even Gaelic playgroups for kids.


Read the rest at: or read it below.

Kandler’s model: These partial differential equations each correspond
to a group of speakers: English, Gaelic, and bilinguals. The variables stand
for aspects of the social situation; c12 and c32, for instance,
are the likelihood that bilingual speakers will become monolingual.
Kandler et al.

The model the mathematicians built blends together numbers from all aspects of Scottish life to sketch a picture of Gaelic’s progress. Some of the numbers are obvious—you must know how many people in the population you’re working with speak just Gaelic, how many speak just English, and how many are bilingual, as well as the rate of loss of Gaelic speakers. But also in the model are numbers that stand for the prestige of each language—the cultural value people place on speaking it—and numbers that describe a language’s economic value.

Kandler’s model: These partial differential equations each correspond to a group of speakers: English, Gaelic, and bilinguals. The variables stand for aspects of the social situation; c12 and c32, for instance, are the likelihood that bilingual speakers will become monolingual.
Kandler et al.

Put them all together into a system of equations that describe the growth of the three different groups—English speakers, Gaelic speakers, and bilinguals—and you can calculate what inputs are required for a stable bilingual population to emerge. In 2010, Kandler found that using the most current numbers, a total of 860 English speakers will have to learn Gaelic each year for the number of speakers to stay the same. To her, this sounded like a lot, but the national Gaelic Development Agency was pleased: it’s about the number of bilingual speakers they were already aiming to produce through classes and programs, a spokesman told The Scotsman when Kandler’s study came out. And if more parents who speak Gaelic start passing it on to their kids, lifting the number of native Gaelic speakers, the number of new bilinguals needed could fall by half.

A new census documenting Scottish Gaelic speakers was completed in 2011. The numbers are being analyzed right now, and Kandler’s waiting on tenterhooks to see what they show.

Kandler’s model is unique to Scottish Gaelic: Quechua, Chinook, Istrian Vlashki, and so on will each need their own, taking into account their unique cultural situations. For instance, the languages of the Pueblo tribes around Santa Fe are spoken by so few people—just a few hundred at most—that by many linguists’ estimates they should have gone extinct long ago. Yet they persist. It would be fascinating to know, through further work like Kandler’s, what factors have kept such languages alive, and whether their lessons can be applied to other endangered tongues.

It’s not just a challenge for monolingual teachers but for bilingual teachers- USA

This article is really interesting because it highlights the problems that both  bilingual and monolingual colleagues experience, but saying that it all boils down to the same thing how can we teach our children in the best way possible. The same thing that we all want to know so that each and every child in our charge is receiving the best education we can give them.

How many Authorities in the UK have asked a parent who speaks Polish, Urdu etc to support the bilingual children and then elevated them to a position as a Teaching Assistant assuming they know how to teach the child? I have also sadly observed that in some cases the teacher then leaves the TA and the children to their own devices almost as relief because the language is a communication barrier. Is thsi really giving both the teachers and children the best! What do you think?

Here is an extract from the news article:

“Before, I felt like I was kind of in survival mode,” she explained, “just trying to get them through. It’s not just a challenge for monolingual teachers but for bilingual teachers. Just because you speak the language of a child doesn’t mean you know the strategies or best practices for teaching” them.

The rest of the article is below:

In a recent Op-Ed for the Washington Post, New America Foundation’s Maggie Severns urged states to rethink teacher preparation in light of our country’s ongoing shift to a minority-majority nation. As Severns explains, immigrant youths and the children of immigrants are among the lowest-performing groups of students in U.S. public schools, AND they will account for virtually all growth in the workforce over the next 40 years.

Severns lauds the work in Illinois, where teachers are being given special training to meet the needs of bilingual learners, something preschool teacher Christina Gomez appreciates:

“Before, I felt like I was kind of in survival mode,” she explained, “just trying to get them through. It’s not just a challenge for monolingual teachers but for bilingual teachers. Just because you speak the language of a child doesn’t mean you know the strategies or best practices for teaching” them.

This is an essential issue, and it’s great that Severns has raised it. I’ve spent all year in two DC-area schools, both of which have Spanish-immersion programs, and I’ve seen first-hand not just the challenges of supporting the needs of children who don’t yet speak English, but also the benefits of having all children learn in a biliterate environment. Different students possess different strengths and weaknesses in different settings. Brain-based research is starting to demonstrate that the benefits of being bilingual go a lot deeper than knowing another language. And the schools — and states — that are ahead of the curve are acting accordingly.

But what else can we do? We might start by heeding the advice of University of Texas professor Angela Valenzuela, a founding member of the Forum for Education & Democracy (an organization for which I served as National Director) and a leading scholar on education policy. I recall asking Dr. Valenzuela what specific policy changes she’d like to see, and here is some of what she recommended.

1.   Ensure more appropriate assessment for special education students and bilingual learners (BLLs) by underwriting efforts to develop, validate, and disseminate more appropriate assessments in the content areas for these students, and by ensuring that the law and regulations encourage assessments that are based on professional testing standards for these groups. This would include helping to develop and requiring the use of tests that are language-accessible for BLLs and appropriate for special education students, and evaluating their gains at all points along the achievement continuum. Additionally, assessments for placement for bilingual learners must occur before we devise assessment criteria for outcomes.  In order to do this, consistency in bilingual learner classification must occur.  We need a measurement classification that is sensitive to the within-group variability of bilingual learners.  This means that an initial assessment of bilingual learners must be conducted to gauge their command of both English and their native languages, mastery levels across core content areas. And we must improve monitoring of bilingual learner student progress, by establishing effective and valid methods of data collection that enables schools to monitor bilingual learners’ progress at all points of their education.  This includes tracking fluent English-proficient (FEP)-classified students to ensure that they do not require programs or services later in their academic careers.  Appropriate instructional strategies that address areas in need of improvement must be quickly addressed long before testing occurs.

2.   Strengthen supports for bilingual and Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students. Under Title III of ESEA, schools and districts are accountable for the academic achievement of bilingual learners and for enabling these students to reach English-language proficiency. However, these students face a unique set of challenges compared to other students. For example, it is difficult to generate advanced conceptual understanding from bilingual learners and LEP students when they are being tested or taught in a language in which they are not proficient. The federal government can encourage teachers, schools, and districts to provide equal education opportunities for these students by:

  • Investing in the development of fully-qualified bilingual teachers who are sensitive to language barriers and cultural differences among students and able to effectively teach bilingual and LEP students;
  • Aligning Title II and III by requiring that state local education agencies (LEA’s) demonstrate how their second language acquisition programs meet the academic and linguistic needs of bilingual learners;
  • Lifting the cap on the amount of money appropriated for preservice preparation of bilingual and English-as-a-second-language teacher candidates, combined with restoring fellowship opportunities (Title VII) for graduate study in those same areas provided in earlier versions of ESEA;
  • Encouraging states and localities to increase the pool of highly qualified bilingual teachers and personnel with expertise in working with BLLs;
  • Supporting high-quality, research-based professional development opportunities for BLL/LEP teachers;
  • Providing all staff with continuous professional development in effective practices, particularly as they apply to bilingual learners.  Teacher candidates, and those already in the profession, should be provided financial support to complete higher education coursework in ESL methodology, or equivalent professional development in sheltered instruction in the subject areas.  For those teachers already in the profession, meeting this goal should be fulfilled by the end of their second year in the classroom.
  • Supporting early school intervention programs that help prevent bilingual students from falling behind academically, and
  • Prohibiting districts and schools from testing bilingual student exclusively in English until they have become proficient in the English language.

What I appreciate about Dr. Valenzuela is her sensitivity to the ways in which we need to view bilingualism as a strength, not a weakness. That’s why she prefers the term “bilingual learner” to the more commonly used English-language learner, or ELL. The former describes the central aspiration we should have for all students. The latter describes the central deficit we see in some.

Perhaps that sounds like mere semantics; but I agree with Angela — it’s a crucial distinction, and one we should all become more attuned to if we hope to create a society worthy of, and prepared to take advantage of, its own rich diversity.