Enticed by a favorable review, I read Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works.” That was 14 years ago. Dodging any education in anything remotely to do with the life sciences (actually, any science), I lifted the tome, costed out my investment, and said “what the hell.”
The reading brought me to at least one life-changing conclusion. The more one learns about the physiology of learning—the more one wants to leap at the throats of systems, institutions, and culture and scream “just excite and do it early.”
The brain, from fetus, has tons of neurons and synapses (things that connect neurons). In short order, you use them or lose them. You weed out things that you don’t use. You capitalize on things that you do use.
Here’s a simple example. In the first years of life, you are exposed to more than one language. Drop dead easy, the kid says in English “school.” In French, “ecole” comes just as easily. Or in Turkish, “okul.” Then comes puberty, strange on all accounts. The function within the brain to fathom two or three words to mean the same thing shifts to a different area. Gosh, the job of learning a second, third, fourth, or fifth language is no longer preposterously easy. We are not wired for that in a place that makes it easy if it’s been pruned away earlier.
I go to Spain. In a day or two, I can get across the point that I’d like a gin on ice: Ginebra en hielo. It wasn’t a phrase that I used in elementary school, but I fell back on a dictionary and a year’s Spanish in 4th grade. Worked like a charm. In middle school, I took Latin (sadly, no longer spoken) and French. In high school, I continued with French and three years of Russian. In college, I stuck with Russian for two years.
After five years of Russian and three years of French, taken well past puberty, I can’t say much beyond “hello.” But conversational Spanish is not very hard.
What’s the lesson? Why on Earth are families not introducing a second or third language before their kid hits Kindergarten? Why does a school start foreign language in 10th grade, when it would be so much cheaper and effective to do so in the first grade? Because nobody tells us how the mind works!
Neuroscience isn’t rocket science, but it’s still science. For educators, parents, guardians, and child care workers, the scientific evidence is in. Do it right. Do it early. Excite or abandon and prune.
Politicians and scientists talk different languages. Getting kids prepped, linguistically and behaviorally, before they hit formal education is the best investment. Isn’t it time to meld politics and culture with science?
By Craig Ruff