Accelerating the Inner Scaffold Across Modalities and Languages
In my last post, we landed on the idea of a nascent scaffold that we are born with in our brains, which is developed through our daily interactions with one another – and then further accelerated through the reinforcement and extension of written language use.
Before we venture into the wilds of the possible relations between language and thought, I wanted to build on this idea of how our inner scaffolds are most fully realized through speaking, listening, reading, and writing by geeking out about the beauty and wonder of multilingualism.
There was a beautiful study I came across recently that provides a great way to visualize this.
The researchers used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to examine neural connectivity during English word processing in bilingual (Chinese-English and Spanish-English) and monolingual children.
The study groups included children (ages 5-10 years, Grades K-4) who were English monolinguals, Chinese-English bilinguals, or Spanish-English bilinguals, all receiving English-dominant education in the US (recruited from southeast Michigan, USA).
The researchers found that the greater proficiency a child (across all groups) had in both spoken and written language, the stronger the farthest connections across their brains were. In other words, spoken and written language exposure and use made longer distance connections across the brain, and then strengthened and reinforced those connections.
Children who were older and more proficient in spoken and written English showed more long-distance connections within the broader language network and across the two hemispheres, suggesting that advancements in language skills are supported by more integrated neural networks. In other words, the development of short-distance connections supports more basic language functions, while long-distance integrative connections mark more advanced or efficient language processing in older and more proficient children.
Furthermore, among bilinguals they found that the greater proficiency a child had in two languages, the greater the neural density those language networks were. In Spanish bilinguals, the network density was associated with Spanish vocabulary, whereas in Chinese bilinguals, the network density was associated with Chinese character reading. Both groups showed greater network density in English in relation to their heritage language skills (most likely due to greater time spent in instruction and use with that language).
These findings suggest that language development is supported by both short and long distance connectivity in a child’s brain. Moreover, long-distance connections are likely critical in integrating different and more complex aspects of language processes such as phonological and morpho-semantic analyses.
What a wonderful visualization of how our inner scaffolds – the nascent neural networks in our brains – are developed by language and literacy! The more we use language across oral (or signed) and written modalities, the more we refine those networks across our brains. And the more languages we speak (or sign) and write, the more we further strengthen those networks based on the unique features of those languages.
We see this with students who are in dual language programs for multiple years – they begin to outperform their monolingual peers. We see with students who are former English language learners (ELLs) who achieve English language proficiency – after achieving proficiency, they begin to outperform their monolingual peers.
So not only do we want to provide our children with daily textual feasts – but furthermore, with linguistic knowledge-building feasts.