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The big brain mystery of language

by Reid Williams

YOUR BRAIN – As you read this, myriad electrochemical fireworks,

humming ephemeral machinery of cognition and stores of memory and learning are opening up. This casual deciphering skill, the ability to speak, listen, read and understand, began to take root before birth, and unless it presents a problem, you don’t give it much thought.

Jessica Spring does.

Earlier this school year, the federal government gave Summit Middle School a three-year grant to recreate its English as a Second Language program. About 75 English language-learners attend the school, and the population is expected to grow. The grant will create outreach initiatives to families, provide materials and resources and, for Spring, the time to rewrite the students are taught in sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade.

Eight months ago, Spring thought she had retired to Summit County. She spent her career as a school speech pathologist in Boulder, and she taught and created English curriculum for eight years in Japan. But when she dropped by Summit Middle School to see if they needed any help, she got a bigger offer than she bargained for.

Now, Spring is using what she’s learned about how language, learning and human development are interconnected and applying it to subjects taught to students with limited English abilities. The hard part is, what scant certainty there is about language acquisition comes from research on elementary-school students. Spring’s adolescent students are a different story.

“When kids are this age, everything we have to give them looks baby-like – I

mean, it’s got ducks on it and such,” Spring said. “We need them to see

themselves as learners, and if I give them baby stuff, that’s saying, “This

is all you can do.'”

The Process

The brain is capable of amazing leaps: After birth, your ears began picking

out the phonemes, or sound units, that make up speech. You spoke your first

words, moved on to phrases that sounded like telegraph messages and, without explicit instruction, become fluent enough to intuitively understand grammar, syntax and prosody, the melody of speech. Teachers reinforced this informal learning during your first years of school, and expanded it with reading and writing.

Spring said when starting over in a second language, learning isn’t automatic.

Children quickly pick up social language, enough to get by on the playground.

But richer language, the kind enabling someone to talk about gravity or ancient civilizations, must be coached and exercised like a muscle.

Spring is trying figure out how to juggle these strategies with specific

subject matter, knowing the students must understand the language in which

abstract concepts are embedded. It means that for every science standard a student must meet, there should be a language standard to accompany it.

“In a way, we’re being like mothers when they learned their first language,”

Spring said. “We change our language, give them “motherese’ and progress as they do. If you require everything of them at once, they shut down.”

How gradually and carefully students are handled, and their success in acquiring the new language, make a permanent impact on the students’ lives.

Their experience can either engage them or marginalize them. Summit High

School ESL teacher Heather Boylan focused on that issue as the subject of her doctoral dissertation. She finished her Ph.D. last month. It took her

seven years, but she feels it’s important work.

“Once, I saw an ESL student who had dropped out at the rec center,” Boylan

said. “He was trying to get himself and his friends checked in, the clerk was

getting frustrated, they were getting frustrated – all over the language.

They finished and the clerk said, “F-ing Mexicans need to learn English.’

School failed that student. He wanted to learn, and we need to find out what

makes the difference.”

Boylan interviewed teachers and students for her research, and asked them

what works and what doesn’t in improving English proficiency. She said her

study supported what a lot of teacher already know: When teachers reach out to the individual and support them in stimulating activities, the motivated student is engaged and progresses.

A real difference will be made, Boylan said, when people’s understanding of

language changes. Many people, she said, associate status with language –

French or German, for example, are held in esteem over Spanish. Even some

educators resist the notion that literacy in the first language aids in learning the second, despite success they might have had studying a foreign language as a literate high school student.

“And, most of all, we need more collaboration,” Boylan said. “We need more time built in for teachers to share and plan.”

Spring said she’s beginning to see positive signs. It tickles her, she said, that ESL professionals are using knowledge and strategies in which she broke ground in speech pathology two decades ago. “We need more crossover,” she said.

“We need to keep reaching out. The last parent conferences we had, two

different fathers came in and showed me their hands. They said they didn’t

want their children to work that hard. We don’t put our heads together enough with challenges like that, and you just can’t learn it all.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or

rwilliams@summitdaily.com.


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