Education: Speaking in Forked Tongues
"Why Bilinguals Are Smarter," a recent column in the New York Times, suggests that children raised in two-language homes tend to have higher IQs, because their brains are forced to be more nimble.
Let's stipulate that this is true. Still, I think there's more to the story. I suspect that any intellectual activity -- playing piano, chess, daily nature walks, video games, learning the constellations -- would tend to speed up intellectual development. A lot of times our modern educators will smugly insist: don't go too fast; children need to be ready to learn! But if parents are speaking two languages, nobody bothers to ask the children, are you ready to be bilingual? The children, as infants, are willy-nilly tossed into total immersion. They respond.
I think there's a lesson here, generally. There is no reason to wait in education. Even complex subjects include simple facts. Start with those. See if a child shows interest. I know a kindergarten teacher who teaches four-year-olds all the things that you might think would be appropriate in first and second grade. The children respond. The brain is not only ready to learn; it's eager to learn. I would put it this way: the brain likes to be busy. When children see progress, they feel good about themselves, and they learn even more.
There is a second way in which the article is unhelpful. It seems to set up a simple, side-by-side comparison: people who speak one language (dumb) versus those who speak two (smart). That hides the primary problem with the kids in our public schools.
It's not that they know only one language. It's that they know nothing deep about even that one language. Our kids know, we might say, one half of one language.
Children taught two languages necessarily learn a lot about grammar, punctuation rules -- the whole galaxy of things called linguistic and literary.
Our Education Establishment has carefully gotten rid of all that. Many children are taught English in only the most minimal and reductionist sense.
Grammar, spelling, punctuation, diagramming sentences -- these are things that force the brain to be smarter. It's probably not news that these activities are scorned in our public schools.
There are two big mistakes now enthroned as dogma. Children are taught as little as possible. Second, instead of being taught the right way to do things, they are taught bad habits such as guessing, invented spelling, close is good enough, and fuzziness of all kinds. They don't get smarter. They are the victims of a war against both content and precision.
Do you want to know how sad all this is? The biggest victims of so-called "progressive" education policies are the disadvantaged kids. These policies are not progressive at all, as normally understood. They are regressive. If you want to help the poor and minority kids, dump the faux-progressive gimmicks, and teach these kids what they need to know to compete in our world. Antonio Gramsci, the famous Italian Communist, preached exactly this sermon. That's because Gramsci was actually trying to help those kids. Our Education Establishment, on the other hand, seems far more focused on elevating ideology than on elevating kids.
Another dubious dimension. The article notes, "This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators, and policy-makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child's academic and intellectual development." Really?
I think that's disingenuous and not at all the whole story. Our Education Establishment, starting about 1930, wanted to dump phonics and to impose Whole Word on American children. Other languages such as French, Spanish, German, etc. would be taught phonetically. That is, kids learn the alphabet and sounds. In short, everybody would be attuned to the significance of phonics. They would expect the same in English.
This was not acceptable to our Education Establishment. In order to make the U.S. safe for Whole Word, these ideologues needed to drive out any mention of alphabet or sounds. Naturally they plotted against second-language training. You can bet that they found ample research to support a negative "understanding of bilingualism." I'd say the most popular lie in American public education is "research-based."
One broader conclusion is that the New York Times tells us only half of what there is to tell. A liberal columnist named Connie Schultz used this Times article in a convoluted way to praise bilingual immigrant mothers. How sweetly PC. I see this a lot. Times pundits, liberals like Leonard Pitts, and any number of columnists want to weep and moan about surface phenomena. But they don't want to look at what they claim to love: "root causes." They don't dare to look closely at the fact that our Education Establishment has a proud tradition of proselytizing for failed theories and methods.
Recently, a French teacher wrote me about the unexpected problem she was having. Her students, never asked to memorize anything in most of their schooling, were stunned to find that in order to learn French, they would actually have to learn French vocabulary. What a bizarre concept. Nobody else made such an unreasonable demand. Why did she?
Sure, we need to teach a second language. But we need to teach more of everything.
We need to start when kids are in kindergarten and teach them all the hundreds of basic pieces of information that every human being needs to know: the names of the colors, why we have time zones, what a moon is, and where the North Pole is. Of course, we need to teach them how our language works -- that is, phonics and grammar. The more that kids learn, the "smarter" they will seem to be, and the more productive they will be.
My practical theorem about the human brain is that the more you know, the more you can know. Conversely, discarding content from classrooms makes students intellectually smaller.
Consider one simple example of the entire phenomenon. When most of us walk into a classroom, we don't see very much. But architects or contractors will look at that room and see dozens of details: the materials that were used, construction techniques, quality of workmanship. They would imagine the blueprints and instructions that told the workers how to hang the ceiling, install wiring, and construct counters. Again, we look at a bird, and we see this thing flying across the sky. A biologist sees hundreds of interesting facts about the bird's aerodynamics, eyes, wings, feet. Feathers all by themselves are something you could write twenty pages about. That's the way it is for the educated person. In small details, they see paragraphs and chapters. A really educated person looks at a flower and sees a book.
Our public schools, if they were serious about education, would emphasize knowledge. Kids learn stuff; that's the whole point of going to school. To pretend that children can spend all day in fact-free activities and somehow end up educated is to play the fool with someone else's life.
More than any other single thing, American children need to be masters of their first language. After that, everything else becomes easier.
Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, and education reformer. He founded Improve-Education.org in 2005.