Guest post by Anna M. Beres, Bangor University
Writing or talking about my research in English is relatively easy. I do it everyday, even though my native language is Polish and I work in Wales, where I am constantly switching between English and Welsh. But whenever I try to explain my work to my family in Polish, it requires a lot more effort. It’s not that I do not know the right words; it is that I need to understand the material at a much deeper level if I am to be accurate. Even though I find it more difficult initially, the explanations seem to last much longer in my memory, and my understanding of the subject grows.
My experience of using – and mixing – multiple languages on a regular basis resonates in my research on bilingualism. My work measuring electrical activity in the brain finds that rather than keeping languages separate, as has been traditionally taught, people should be encouraged to decide themselves when and which language they should use to meet their communicative needs.
Historically, using two languages in the same lesson has been considered an “academic deficiency,” a lack of control over students’ language skills; inserting words in the second language was seen as a gap in knowledge, an unwelcome interference. Educators commonly believed that such “cross-contamination” could hinder children’s education and impact their academic growth. Therefore, although most people have considered bilingual education desirable, multiple languages within the classroom have been strictly separated, by subject, different teachers, or days of the week.
Only recently, with the rise of globalization and increasing bilingualism, have scientists and educators started to question the validity of separating two languages – wondering if mixing two languages in a meaningful way not only is not harmful to a child’s learning, but also might be beneficial. Scholars around the world have been emphasizing the need for a new, fresh approach to bilingualism – one that enables speakers to be comfortable with their languages and to use them to enhance learning.
My research on “translanguaging” – a term that came about in Wales towards the end of the 20th century in response to historic separation of Welsh and English – explores the benefits of mixing languages in everyday situations. Translanguaging is when students receive information in one language, and are encouraged to produce an output of their learning in another language. It is frequently confused with the broader concept of code-switching, in which bilinguals occasionally alternate their languages in a single conversation.
When receiving information in one language and having to produce it back in another, students need to be able to fully internalize and process what they hear in one language before they are able to use their other language to describe the message. In a typical classroom where only one language is used, it is very easy for pupils to answer questions or write a short essay based on what they heard or read without fully understanding the subject. Students can easily pick up on some key words or concepts and almost “copy and paste” the information without true understanding. Translanguaging essentially forces students to fully engage in the topic and understand it at a much deeper level.
“Translanguaging essentially forces students to fully engage in the topic and understand it at a much deeper level.”
Although this method of learning has been rising to fame in recent years, the evidence so far has been limited to qualitative studies and informal classroom observations. In my research with colleagues at Bangor University, we aimed to provide the first quantitative evidence that translanguaging is beneficial when acquiring new knowledge.
To do that, we have run the first-ever neuroscientific investigation of translanguaging using event-related brain potentials (ERPs). We recruited fully balanced Welsh-English bilinguals for the study and presented them with a novel-object learning task in which we manipulated the learning context.
We created a set of 40 novel objects, which were usually parts of a machine, or an antique object; we made sure that they were so strange and uncommon that participants would not have been likely to ever see them before. Those objects had no names, and we made up their definitions. So for example, we had a golden object shaped a bit like a telephone handle, and we said that “It is used to communicate orders in ships.”
After seeing this object and its definition on a computer screen, it disappeared from the screen and participants saw a set of four familiar objects (e.g. a cow, a sailor, a piano, a tree) and had to name out loud the one that relates to the novel object via its definition. Half of the participants had to name it in the same language as the definition (monolingual context) and half in a different language (translanguaging).
Therefore, the monolingual condition involved using the same language throughout, and the translanguaging condition involved using one language at comprehension, and another at production stage. We also made sure that the name of the familiar picture was never a part of the definition, so participants really had to understand the use/purpose of the novel object before they were able to relate something familiar to it.
After this first phase, we tested the efficiency of participants’ learning in the monolingual and translanguaging contexts by showing them the picture pairs again – the novel object they learned about before followed by the associated familiar picture, as well as an unrelated picture – while measuring the participants’ ERPs . We were specifically interested in the N400, the “wave” of the ERP that represents “semantic integration effort;” the larger it is, the harder the brain had to work to process the information.
In our study, if participants correctly remembered and understood the picture pairs, the N400 wave was smaller, meaning that their brains required less effort to process them. So let’s say that during learning, participants learned that this strange novel golden object that looks a bit like an old telephone is associated with a sailor (because they were told that it is “used to communicate orders in ships”): In the testing phase, they would see this golden object followed by a sailor, thereby producing a smaller N400 because they knew that those two go together, but then later they would see the golden object followed by an unrelated object – say, a chair – and this would produce a larger N400 wave because the novel object was a mismatch with the chair.
This N400 testing set-up has been well-established for more than 40 years now. We have replicated this common finding, while – and this is really amazing – also finding an effect from altering the learning context, by changing the language in which the pairs were learned. We found that the N400 wave was much smaller for those objects that were taught in the translanguaging context rather than the monolingual condition.
Because each novel object was only taught in one context (so for example, the golden telephone-like novel object was presented in either the translanguaging block or the monolingual one, but never both for the same participant), this means that the picture-pairs that were learned in the translanguaging block were a lot easier to process for participants than those that were learned in the monolingual context. This finding is spectacular because, for the first time, it shows the effects of translanguaging on the neuroscientific level.
So while the last several decades of language and education research have suggested that using two languages in the same context in learning may confuse students, we now find that it doesn’t confuse them at all; it actually makes their learning better.
Moreover, we found that same pattern 2-4 weeks later, when we invited the same participants back to the lab and tested how much they remember of what they learned. What they learned a few weeks before in the translanguaging condition still produced a significantly smaller N400 wave; therefore, this information was more effortless to retrieve than the information they learned in a monolingual context.
These results show that translanguaging has a pretty spectacular effect on learning and long-term memory – and extend the ”bilingual advantage” commonly observed in the domain of executive functioning to the general domain of learning. Beyond simply helping people learn a second language, our findings suggest that translanguaging is just as useful in general knowledge acquisition in fully balanced bilinguals.
While this is something that I have known anecdotally for years in switching between English, Welsh, and Polish, it has been rewarding to see the quantitative effects on a neuroscientific level. With more studies to fully understand how translanguaging works, we can dramatically change how people both learn multiple languages and effectively use them in our increasingly bilingual world.
Beres is a graduate student in the School of Psychology at Bangor University. She did this work under Guillaume Thierry, professor of cognitive neuroscience, and is currently working with Debbie Mills, also a cognitive neuroscientist at Bangor.
Beres has presented this research at several conferences, including the 2013 meeting of the Society for the Neurobiology of Language last November in San Diego, Calif., where she gave the talk “Translanguaging – boosting the acquisition of new knowledge using bilingualism.”
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