As part of our Parent Education series, in partnership with the ISDenver Parent-Teacher organization, Dr. Gigi Luk, Associate Professor of Education in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recently visited us to give a intellectual lecture to our community: The Science of Bilingualism: Implications for Development, Learning, and Education. Dr. Luk delved into her fascinating research on the neuroscience of the bilingual brain, and how diverse language experiences shape development and learning. We had a chance to interview Dr. Luk one on one for an in-depth look at her research, her thoughts on the future of bilingual education, and her visit to ISDenver.
What sparked your interest in the bilingual brain and bilingual education?
Understanding how two languages representing ideas, thoughts, and feelings is my passion since I was a child. I was always curious about how communication of abstract concepts and idea occurs. Using neuroscience comes about when I realized that comparing behavior often leaves us with relative conclusions, such as group A performs better/worse than group B. While this research paradigm is informative, we need a different rhetoric to represent the dynamic development we see in bilingual children (and adults). One tool to expand our understanding on how concepts are represented in a bilingual’s mind is through cognitive neuroscience. Following my doctoral training, I completed a postdoctoral fellowship at a research institute to acquire skills to conduct neuroimaging studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). I studied older people during this phase of my career. With the knowledge I learned in the aging population, I wondered about the roles bilingualism play in development and learning. Following this idea, I landed in the [Harvard Graduate School] of Education, allowing me to investigate how bilingualism shapes development and learning across the lifespan.
What is the most interesting result you have found in your research of bilingualism and child development?
There are two findings that I consider the most interesting: First, in a paper published in 2011, I reported that older adults (~70 years old) with lifelong bilingual experience (and comparable in demographics, education levels, etc) had more connected brain structures compared to those who primarily only speak one language throughout their lives. These results confirmed what we know about brain plasticity: maintaining an active mind is related to observable structural differences in the brain. Second, our recent findings showed that learning a second language in adulthood also changes the way adults acquire information in their first language. This is exciting because previous research often compares learning through a first language versus learning through a second language. Observing different functional brain regions recruited by these individuals is expected. Our findings suggest that the experience of learning a second language changes the way our brain responds to learning in our first language. These findings highlight our brain’s capacity to reorganize itself, both functionally and structurally, in response to language experience (something that we do everyday effortlessly).
What is your favorite part of your research, and why?
My favorite part of my research, surprisingly, is in establishing different partnerships with parents, educators, and families. Through these partnerships, both in the U.S. and internationally, I have the firsthand experience of understanding the different meanings of bilingualism around the world. For some, being bilingual is a choice. For others, being bilingual is part of life. Importantly, the capacity to becoming bilingual is not determined by the nature of whether bilingualism is an option. It is determined by the environment and how an individual decides to interact with this environment. In a way, being bilingual is like adapting to the complex linguistic environment, turning some of the noise in the environment to signal. At the same time, I enjoy using scientific methods to understand human behavior, generating new knowledge that informs educational practices. My interactions with educators shape my scientific questions. The cycle of knowledge generation ↔ knowledge translation is my favorite intellectual research activity.
What do you see in the future for bilingual education and child development?
I think bilingual education is becoming the norm. The conversation should evolve from whether there should be bilingual education to how we can provide quality and accessible bilingual education. What is the human capital that policymakers should invest in to enable quality bilingual education? How should we align the curricula to be developmentally sensitive to children acquiring two languages? How can we harness family and community resources to enrich child development and learning, particularly during early childhood? Can bilingual education facilitate linguistic inclusivity and promote equitable learning experiences for all learners? These questions are not only for policymakers; parents and frontline educators’ voices should be heard and they have a lot to contribute to this conversation. I anticipate more open and transparent conversations about bilingual education in the future.
What do you think is unique about ISDenver and the way that we do bilingual education?
My most memorable impression during my visit to ISDenver is the sense of community. There are individual and collective learning in and out of the target language classrooms. Knowledge is transmitted and consumed through different languages, highlighting the fluidity of languages as symbolic representations of abstract concepts. Learning occurs regardless of the representation, enabling children to acquire concepts in a flexible manner. In addition, the 100% immersion model in the young age is certainly a unique feature. Taking advantage of the cognitive responsiveness and neural plasticity, exposing children to a non-English language is certainly the most efficient way to introduce a second language. Finally, I admire the mission and vision of ISDenver: to cultivate the next generation of global citizens. Being bilingual is the first step towards becoming a versatile bilingual, biliterate learner with awareness and respect of diverse cultures in the world.
Miss Dr. Luk's visit to campus? You can watch her entire presentation here!