Sunday, February 22, 2009

Teaching Babies Languages

Many wise and insightful things have been said about how easily babies learn language. Many clever and extensive scientific studies have informed the subject. But many intriguing questions remained unresolved--questions like:

Does learning more than one language early in life enhance (or, perhaps, interfere with) learning the baby's first, obviously crucial, "native" language?

Does it enhance (no one, to my knowledge, has suggested it might interfere with) learning other things like acculturation, artistic sensitivity, imaginative and creative thinking, or even logic and other cognitive abilities?

To what extent does it depend on close emotional relationships?

To what extent is the capacity to learn a language or languages (particularly their grammars) inborn?

To what extent, and when, does language-learning ability come of age and fade (in other words, to what extent, and when, is there an "awakening" for this capacity in early childhood development, and a "sun-setting")?

Despite these and other interesting controversies, a few things stand clear--they are obvious even with the most rudimentary and unsophisticated observations: essentially, little kids learn languages more quickly than older kids and grown ups*:

They pick up vocabulary faster (despite the obvious disadvantage of not knowing translational cognates).

They pick up variations in grammar quicker (which probably has to do both with climbing out of learned mental ruts and with the increased embarrassment that comes on with latency and expands in adolescence).

And they learn better pronunciation (which is probably mostly related to the fact that monolingual kids learn to ignore certain phonemic distinctions; for example, childhood learners of Mandarin who have no phonemic experience with other languages learn to be unable to distinguish a "rrr" sound from a "lll" sound, and this learned inability becomes deeply--perhaps ever neurologically--ingrained; yes, this is a learned inability).

Combine these advantages with the equally obvious social and vocational advantages of being fluent in more than one language, and it becomes clear that an important part of optimal child-rearing is assuring that young kids (age, say, zero to twelve) be richly exposed to multiple languages. In the Berlitz family, the grand patriarch and founder of the dynasty, Maximilian Berlitz, had a couple of interesting rules for the kids. One was that each adult had an assigned language: grandpa spoke with the children only in German, for example; momma, only in Russian; the nanny, only in Spanish. One Berlitz offspring recalls wondering as a child why he didn't have his own personal language since each adult seemed to have a different, private language; he decided he would probably get one when he was older.

Another family rule which applied to all kids of elementary through high-school age was that each one studied a new language each year.

What a rich educational bounty it is to give a child multiple language fluencies!

And--being nontraditional and inconvenient--how often neglected!

Note: * The exception to youth's advantage is for people who already know several languages who seem to be able to learn an additional language quickly; reportedly, for example, a U.N. translator who had simultaneous translation abilities in six languages and conversational fluency in some two dozen others was able to learn Icelandic to conversational proficiency in two weeks. It has been estimated that learning a foreign language of the same general group as a language one already knows (such as learning another Indo-European or Romance language, e.g., Spanish or Hungarian, if one already knows French) requires 40 to 60 hours studying vocabulary and a comparable amount of time in conversational practice (grammar is not studied as a separate discipline but is learned en passant during the practice).

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Nation Building

The astonishing effectiveness of the Grameen Bank in raising tens of millions of people in Bangladesh and India from the enslaving cycle of poverty coupled with the astonishing collapse, in September, 2008, of the First-World international banking system (and add to those the difficulties encountered in the U.S. struggles to bring Iraq and Afghanistan into the 21st century) raise anew a perplexing, age-old question: What does it take to make civilization rise--and keep working? Philosophers have struggled with this question for at least 2500 years since Plato took it on in the dialogs he wrote of Socrates; politicians have been struggling with it more pragmatically for at least 7500 years since the first cities arose in Mesopotamia.

The essential conundrum is that while it is clearly beneficial in some ways for people to live in proximity to one another--both (1) to specialize their individual efforts (so that someone skilled in shoe-making, for example, can spend time making shoes rather than farming or building a house), and (2) to provide for needs that are best handled collectively (such as defense)--it is also clearly disadvantageous in some ways (since the neighbors are bound to have their share of immature, infirm, and irresponsible members).

There are human-caused destabilizing or anti-civilizing forces. The first constraint on these is religion: every religion, it seems, embodies the basic, civilizing principle (sometimes called the "Golden Rule"): "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." This is the essence of the civilization contract, although religions generally impose or enforce this by holding out some other reward, either magical (e.g., heaven), social (e.g., fellowship), or personal (e.g., tranquility or enlightenment).

The second is rational philosophy: Life goes better for everyone (including, most compellingly, our children and our children's children) if we are all nice to one another (i.e., fair and honest, and even permissive of one another's idiosyncrasies). However, there is a problem with this attitude or orientation. Although it seems obvious and valuable during calm, contemplative moments, it regularly falls apart in the face of real-world, real-life challenges, i.e., it is hard to see the disadvantages of stealing from one's neighbor--that in stealing from one's neighbor one encourages the development of a social milieu in which, in the future, one's neighbor may steal from oneself. In a similar way, many people "believe in" the law, but few have Socrates' strength of personal philosophical commitment: they are not able or willing to accept death because it is the will of (and presumably for the betterment of) the State.

The third kind of constraint on destabilizing, anti-civilizing forces is force. A stronger warrior or a community's police or military can impose their will on the aberrant behavior of an individual or smaller group. However, this can be very difficult to control in service of the ongoing, general public good (this is illustrated, for example, by the violence that so often develops in urban gangs, by the recurrence of police brutality, by the recurrent ascension of organized crime and drug cartels, and by the civil rights abuses of the Bush-Cheney administration).

Finally, the fourth constraint is standardized, codified (written) rules of civil order--from the codes of Draco and Hammurabi to those of British Common Law and the U.S. Constitution (and their derivatives). These hold promise, when combined with the first three ingredients (religious mores, rational philosophy, and forceful police and military), of providing ongoing civilized accord.

But why do people band together and subjugate their individual wills for common action? The fundamental role of government is to provide members (that is, citizens) with goods and services that can be handled more effectively and cost-efficiently by the group than by individuals. These fall into two broad categories: infrastructure and public services.

There are several kinds of infrastructure:
(1) highways (including overpasses, bridges, and tunnels; and also traffic controls),
(2) mass-transit (including airports and air-traffic control),
(3) water supply (including purification),
(4) waste-water management,
(5) solid waste treatment and disposal (including hazardous wastes),
(6) power generation and transmission (that is, delivery of energy),
(7) telecommunications (trunks and regulation), and
(8) land improvement (including monuments and public works)

As to different kinds of public services:
(1) education and entertainment (lifelong resources),
(2) health care,
(3) wealth storage (including retirement protection),
(4) emergency services (police, fire, and health), and
(5) basic research (scientific and social).

Each of these subheadings warrants an essay--if not a volume or two. Each can, to some extent, be provided by private individuals. Each must be the subject of codified rules, and supervised with transparency and clear responsibility for public, versus private, betterment.

But even with all four of these constraints in effect, and all of the various kinds of infrastructure and public services in place, there are two more missing ingredients for nation-building--ones that are often overlooked. The first of these is incubation. No matter how facilely and fully formed the substratum of civilization may spring, like Athena from the mind of Zeus (or civil governance from the "guns and butter" of zealous "nation building" efforts), it can only take hold and function in an integrated and ongoing way over a period of years--even over a generation or more. Nation building requires providing the accouterments of civilization; but it also requires the long, slow plodding of acculturation. Just as, in a parallel way, the maturation of an individual requires years of growth and experience and, similarly, so does the long, slow thrust of psychotherapeutic healing from childhood neurotic damage, even so do a people emerge only slowly over a time span of years to decades into a clearer, more civilized light.

The second of these elusive, often overlooked ingredients is patient practice. As with individual maturity or mental health, salutary civil administration is not a "condition" so much as it is a "process." It must, in Barack Obama's words, "be perfected." As with a healthy biological organism, it must continually be subject to growth and repair.

Nation building is a complex and delicate affair. It requires an integrated set of community mores and codes (that is, laws), and mechanisms for applying internal and external force consistent with those mores and codes. It requires elaborate infrastructure and public services. And it requires two final ingredients as well: it must include the means (including appropriate child-rearing practices and lifelong education/entertainment opportunities) for people to learn, over a period of time, to live in a civilized society and to tolerate its frustrations and annoyances; and it must include a willingness (and mechanisms) for repairing and developing the salutary civil administration for many years, in fact, forever.