Growing up in a trilingual household, with immigrant grandparents, we were all a bit ashamed and, worse, we were worried. The best science of the time "proved" that children who were hearing and learning multiple languages were never as good in any language as those linguistically pure children untainted by foreignness. My grandparents on both sides of the family, with three different native languages, worked mightily to banish accents and vocabulary. When they were angry, curse words came through but most times they tried not to resort to a native tongue. All these new Americans looked anxiously upon their progeny and grandchildren, sure that they were harming us because, after all, that's what the best researchers at the time said they were doing.
Welcome to the new neuroscience! The "Now You See It" in the title of my forthcoming book is, among other things, a celebration of a neuroscience that is consistently, if un-systematically, taking the reductionist "mono-" principles of the twentieth century and looking at what is missing in what were once thought to be truisms (or proven facts even) about the brain. I call this whole, wondrous, potentially powerful new neuroscientific research "Measuring Plan B." If we stop obsessing about what only can be done in a linear, measured, item-response, simplistic developmentally-determined and normative way and we begin to look at all the other ways that diverse humans learn, we find, over and over, surprises of complexity, difference, excellence, creativity, and innovation. If we make Measuring Plan B part of our research design, guess what? We find that many of the truisms of twentieth-century science require rethinking. The implications of that new thinking are enormous for everything--infant learning, child rearing, education, the workplace, aging. (This is why the subtitle of my book is "How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn": if we live in a world where we can learn how to Measure Plan B, we can then begin to create institutions, methods, pedagogies, and practices that support all the flourishing, improbable, creative, alternative Plan B's that all of us learn in the course of a lifetime. It's truly exciting.)
Take this morning's example of Measuring Plan B, in a marvelous article in the New York Times by Claudia Dreifus, a conversation with the distingished cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok. A recent recipient of the Killam Prize, Bialystok's work not only shows that bilingual children are especially good at systems thinking--at being able to step back from the details of a question and understand complex patterns (such as how grammar works apart from meaning--but they are even better at multitasking than monolingual people. Have two subjects driving in a simulator with headphones assigning them extra tasks and both do worse at driving (duh!) but the bilinguals do less worse. They are able to organize complex multiple functions better than those who are monolingual.
Now, not only is that wonderful new research that tells us a lot about bilingual brains, but it is also, by extension, opening new ways of measuring the "bilingualism" of early-age multimedia multitasking. We're not there yet. We haven't yet structured scientific experiments in this Measuring Plan B way, but I am positive, given the way the research is going, that soon we will have complex ways to study the kind of carry-over and transitioning among tasks that is analogous to asking a child if the sentence "Apples grow on noses" is grammatically correct. Monolingual children get stuck on the content and say "That's silly." Bilingual children say "That's silly--and it is grammatically correct." The dual language systems that organize their executive functions allow for "content" and "form" to be processed independently and also in conjoined fashion--and allow them to step back and examine things on this other level. Other forms of co-learned skills operate in a similar way, something we have long known from violinists (whose brain functions for discrete right and left-handed movement change quite differently than normally handed or even typically ambidextrous individuals) or athletes and jugglers and others who develop highly specialized, simultaneous, and yet blurred skills.
Measuring Plan B opens up all kinds of new topics for us to examine--if only we can realize that Plan B is not a deficiency but an alternative. Measuring Plan B opens up all kinds of new definitions of intelligence, ability, aptitude, skills, and learning. I call these 21st century skills, not just because they are the optimum skills for an interactive, process-oriented collaborative digital world but because they are based on a new neuroscience that (as with all explanations of the brain, throughout history) has been inspired by new technologies and not just as an adaptation to it. In fact "not just" is one of those phrases that, if we are serious about Measuring Plan B, we can get rid of.
Here's something to think about: a startling number of U.S. Presidents have been left handers. Is it possible that left-handers grow up learning systems thinking because every aspect of their lives requires negotiating a right-handed world? Is left-handedness a form of bilingualism? What else is?
That's speculation. But back to Bialystok. One of the most interesting parts of her findings is that bilingualism delays the onset not of Alzheimer's but of the manifestations of Alzheimer's symptoms by five or six years. Why? Because bilinguals who experience deterioration in certain parts of the brain use their Plan B executive functions to draw from other parts. That, to me is the "now you see it" breakthrough: that we can use our own brains to work around our own brains. Bilinguals show us one way. There are others. And that offers many hopes for the future of us all.
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011). For more information, visit www.nowyouseeit.net or order on Amazon.com by clicking on the book below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.