Friday, May 30, 2008

Right-brained epiphanies, Part II: when stroke strikes the left hemisphere

This past Sunday's New York Times Styles Section reports on the most drastic right-brained epiphany I've ever heard of.

On December 10th, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, then a neuroscientist at Harvard's brain research center, suffered a left-hemisphere stroke and lost analytical functions like speech, numeracy, and literacy.  Then came eight years of recovery.

And Nirvana:

Within minutes after the golf-ball sized clot popped a blood vessel, and her left lobe began to fail, Taylor felt great:

I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle. The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.

Taylor, now the author of My Stroke of Insight, says she is a new person who “can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere” and be “one with all that is.”

Quoting the Times:

The incessant chatter that normally filled her mind disappeared. Her everyday worries — about a brother with schizophrenia and her high-powered job — untethered themselves from her and slid away.

Her perceptions changed, too. She could see that the atoms and molecules making up her body blended with the space around her; the whole world and the creatures in it were all part of the same magnificent field of shimmering energy.

Despite her stroke, Taylor continues, as the Times puts it, to "battle her left brain for the better." 

"Nirvana exists right now," she says. "There is no doubt that it is a beautiful state and that we can get there." Quoting the Times:
No meditation is necessary, she says, just the belief that the left brain can be tamed.

In her own life, Taylor has lightened her load and stops to smell the roses:

Her house is on a leafy cul-de-sac minutes from Indiana University, which she attended as an undergraduate and where she now teaches at the medical school.

Her foyer is painted a vibrant purple. She greets a stranger at the door with a warm hug. When she talks, her pale blue eyes make extended contact.

As for the rest of the world, Dr. Taylor says:

I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.

Perhaps more revealing than Taylor's insights is the reaction they've provoked. As the Times notes:

Her message, that people can choose to live a more peaceful, spiritual life by sidestepping their left brain, has resonated widely.  

After her speech at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference was posted as a video on TED’s Web site, she became, in the Times words, "a mini-celebrity." 

More than two million viewers have watched her talk, and about 20,000 more a day continue to do so. An interview with her was also posted on Oprah Winfrey’s Web site, and she was chosen as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2008.

She also receives more than 100 e-mail messages a day from fans.

Buried in this otherwise gushing article, we should note, are the following caveats:

Left-brain injuries don’t necessarily lead to blissful enlightenment; people sometimes sink into a helplessly moody state: their emotions run riot. Dr. Taylor was also helped because her left hemisphere was not destroyed, and that probably explains how she was able to recover fully.


On Web sites like and in Eckhart Tolle discussion groups, people debate whether she is truly enlightened or just physically damaged and confused.

For further editorial balance, I believe the Times should now seek out someone who loses right-brain function and has the following epiphanies:

1. Being less controlled by wild, unpredictable, reality-warping passions, and more by clear-headed rationality, brings me a state of inner calm like I've never experienced before.

2. Living and working hard in a busy city, surrounded by bookstores, museums, and intellectuals, sure beats living out in the sticks in an ever more limited world of my own.

3. The more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner logic circuitry of our left hemispheres, the more calm, unprejudiced rationality we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be. 

But perhaps such a person wouldn't generate quite the same amount of fan mail as Taylor does?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Math problems of the week: grade 2 Trailblazers vs. Singapore Math

1. From the Trailblazers 2nd grade workbook:

Solve the problem three different ways. Problem: 68 + 12.
First way:
Second way:
Third way:

2. From the Singapore Math 2nd grade workbook:
Add or subtract.
(a) 324 + 149 =
(b) 440 + 76 =
(c) 569 + 283 =
In requiring the child to solve one problem in three different ways, I suspect Trailblazer's agenda extends beyond showing kids that there's no one "right" way, to making sure that they solve the problem at least twice without using the dreaded addition algorithm (here, carrying a 1 to the tens place).

While not the only "right" way, the standard algorithm is generally the most efficient, particularly when one moves beyond the easy, carefully-contrived problems of Reform Math (where, above, it's easy to add the 60 and the 10 first, hold the sum in memory, and then add the additional 10 from 8 + 2).

Imagine what happens to a 7-year-old's working memory load if s/he tries to solve problem (c) of the Singapore problems without using the standard algorithm:
500 + 200 is 700.  60 plus 80 is... Well, 6 + 6 is 12 (I know my doubles) so 60 + 60 is 120, and 20 more is 140.  700 plus 140 is 840.  9 plus 3 is 12.  840 + 12 is... Well 840 plus 10 is 850, and 2 more is 852.
569 is one less than 570.  283 is three more than 280.  500 plus 200 is 700.  70 plus 80 is... well 70 + 70 is 140, and 10 more is 150.  150 plus 700 is 850.  Then we have one less and three more, which is two more, so we get 852.

Enjoying and progressing through math means freeing up working memory for higher-level concepts, not burdening it with contortions like these.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Marginalizing standardized tests: consequences for left-brainers

I'm no fan of standardized tests. Partly it's personal. I don't test well: speed and concentration elude me. Partly it's philosophical. No standardized test captures the intellectual skills I value most:  synthesizing data, connecting concepts, forging new ideas, shifting paradigms.

But, in today's world of subjective assessments and anti-left-brain biases, I'd much rather have my standardized test scores decide my admission to selective academic programs than my grades, teacher recommendations, and "character." Nor would I want the Gatekeepers that Be to factor in my extracurriculars:  like many left-brainers, I'm a narrowly focused introvert, engaging in just one or two hobbies at a time, none of them involving "leadership."

So it's with dismay that I read, in today's New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, that:

1. Smith College and Wake Forest University have jumped on the anti-test bandwagon, eliminating SAT and ACT scores from their core admissions requirements. Like increasing numbers of colleges and universities, they will shift emphasis to grades, extracurricular activities, and, quoting the Times, "character and talent."

2. Pennsylvania wants its public schools to reduce the number of gifted students per teacher, and to use more than IQ scores to determine admission to gifted programs--where "more" typically means classroom work and teacher recommendations.

When grade school teachers downgrade introverts for failing to participate orally, math buffs for failing to show their work, and all-round smart kids for failing to complete, with proper zeal and alacrity, work that is far too easy for them, and when these students lack the resume of leadership roles touted by their extroverted counterparts, all they have are their standardized test scores...

However imperfectly these scores reflect their--and everyone else's-- intelligence. 

Monday, May 26, 2008

New IQ tests: more bad news for left-brainers

Joanne Jacobs reports an Education Week story about a new IQ test, developed by Yale psychologists and based on the ideas of Robert Sternberg, that redefines intelligence as encompassing not just the analytic skills that traditional IQ tests measure, but so-called "practical" and "creative" skills as well.

Designed, in part, to level the playing field for admission to gifted programs, the so-called Aurora test (named for the rainbow colors of the polar auroras) is, quoting Education Week:

...a comprehensive battery that includes a group-administered paper-and-pencil test, a parent interview, a scale for teacher rating of students, and some observation items. The paper-and-pencil test gauges creativity, for instance, by asking students to imagine what objects might say to one another if they could talk, or to generate a story plot to fit an abstract illustration on a children’s-book cover.

Teacher ratings, parent interviews, dubious creativity gauges: lots of room for subjective judgments of the sort that, as I've discussed here, here, here, here, and here, tend to disfavor left-brainers.

Consider, especially, Aurora's sample creativity question:

Number 7 and Number 4 are playing at school, but then they get in a fight. Why aren't 7 and 4 getting along?

This question so profoundly irritates my left-brained sensitivities that I'm completely stumped. Only in a fit of sarcasm could I possibly come up with something like Aurora's sample "high scoring" response:

They are not the same. One is even, the other odd. Seven doesn't like 4 because two 4's are 8 and 8 is 7's evil brother! 4 doesn't like 7 because 7 is a prime number.

As Joanne Jacobs notes, "I don't see the next Spielberg there."

The egregious lack of theoretical rigor and empirical support for Aurora's redefinition of IQ (discussed in this article by Gottfredson) doesn't stop it from, quoting Education Week, "attract[ing] strong supporters at the k-12 level."

Education Week reports the Yale researchers as faulting traditional intelligence tests for measuring only a "narrow subset" of intelligence: memory and analytical skills. According to EW, these "are the kinds of abilities that teachers tend to value and emphasize in the classroom."

Well, maybe once, but, as I've discussed here, here, here and here, not any more. Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences began infiltrating our classrooms long before Aurora was a twinkle in Sternberg's eye.

Today's classrooms are so biased against left-brainers that standardized tests like SATs, APs, and traditional IQ tests have been their one remaining recourse for academic distinction.

But now even these assessments are starting to downplay left-brained skills in favor of amorphous entities like "creativity" for which there is no objective measure--but plenty of room for right-brain bias.

First came the new SAT tests, which replace analogies with essays and mental math with calculators. Next up, it now seems, are school-sanctioned IQ tests.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Geek chic, or right-brained science

In a story this week entitled "Geek Chic: A Scientific Renaissance," ABC news claims that, after decades of marginalization, scientists are once again shining in the public spotlight.

ABC's evidence:

The popularity of urban science clubs and Stephen Hawking books, and an explosion of science and technology cable programs and Web sites.

Science club popularity may indicate little beyond the fact that real science--as opposed to that taught in many grade schools--continues to be popular with those who like science, and that the Internet has made it easier to organize clubs like Dorkbot, which brings together about 100 people per month to various cities to do "strange things with electricity."

As for the science one sees in popular books and cable programs, much of this focuses on what theoretical physicist Brian Green calls "the Mr. Wizard kind of approach to science":

There are many people who think that the only way you can bring science to kids is to blow things up, to bring balloons and confetti and bulbous letters and lots of exclamation points.

Greene's own bestseller, The Elegant Universe, addresses cosmology and string theory, two of the sexiest topics in science today, even for those who haven't a clue. How many of Greene's many readers, I wonder, work their way through the section on Calabi-Yau Manifolds?

A more recent best-seller is Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku, another theoretical physicist. Kaku is now promoting his book to sell-out crowds, and his website crashed last month at 300 visitors per minute. His topic? In ABC's words: "how seemingly impossible ideas like time travel and telepathy are realistically being explored by physicists and Hollywood screen writers."

Next up: the World Science Festival, which opens in New York on May 28th. Its special features? ABC touts "a dance performance that interprets string theory" and "a screening of The Bourne Identity, followed by a discussion about brain function and amnesia."

Like the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, which recently dropped "science" from its name, the assumption throughout is that one can only attract people to science by making science less scientific: diluting it with dance, cinema, and cheap thrills.

But as even Greene, one of the organizers of the World Science Festival, notes, "it's a big mistake when one underestimates what kids can take on board."

While best-seller Kaku insists that "We scientists have to blame ourselves for not engaging the people about our work," I can't help wondering whether we might attract more people to science not by changing science, but by teaching it properly. Instead of The Lorax, how about tree physiology and photosynthesis; instead of time travel, special relativity; instead of ecologically-friendly lifestyles, ecology.

Then, just possibly, we'll interest more students in actual science, and better prepare them for the college-level courses that deter too many people, not because they aren't interested, but because they are so poorly prepared.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Math problem of the week: Investigations vs. Continental Math League

1. From grade 3 Investigations, a Reform Math program:

Three children have one book of 15 movie tickets to share.  Each movie costs one ticket.  How many movies can each child see?

2. From sample problems for grade 3 (3-1) Continental Mathematics League, a popular math competition league:

Ann has $1 in nickels, dime, and quarters, with at least one of each. What is the difference between the largest number of coins that she could have and the smallest number of coins that she could have?


A simple (for 3rd grade!) but poorly defined problem: each child can see as many as 15 movies, as long as the other two agree not to see any.


A well-defined multistep problem involving multiple constraints and harder calculations.

Thank goodness our principal has, as of a meeting this morning, warmly welcomed our plan to start up an after-school Continental Math League team for interested 2nd and 3rd graders.  

We want these students, before they fall too far behind their international (and non-Reform Math) peers, to learn what they're missing at school, to have opportunities to distinguish themselves mathematically, and to see that math is fun, interesting, and much, much more than simple answers to boring, poorly-written questions.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Left-brainers in politics, II

Bill Bishop's The Big Sort, reviewed in this past Sunday's New York Times, describes a political landscape here in America that cries out for some left-brained moderation.

Political gerrymandering, media balkanization, online echo chambers, and, most influentially, the growing numbers of people who choose to live among like-minded neighbors, have lead to:

...pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.

Worse, studies suggest that when like-minded individuals congregate, social pressures not only cause them to homogenize their beliefs, but to gravitate towards extremes.  As reviewer Scott Stossel notes:

...when relatively like-minded people are grouped together, they don’t settle around the average point of view of the individuals in the group but rather become more extreme in the direction toward which they’re already inclined. 

In Bishop's words:

It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re a frat boy, a French high school student, a petty criminal or a federal appeals court judge. Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.

The solution?  Quoting Stossel:

Bishop cites research suggesting that, contrary to the standard goo-goo exhortations, the surer route to political comity may be less civic engagement, less passionate conviction. So let’s hear it for the indifferent and unsure, whose passivity may provide the national glue we need.

I'm all for less passionate conviction.  But less civic engagement?

Here's another, perhaps more palatable idea: 

Let's raise the status of those who are least susceptible to conformist pressures, and most susceptible to empirical evidence, rationality, and skepticism (about politics in general and extremism in particular). 

I mean, of course, the lowly left-brainer.  

Those of us who care least about social consequences--i.e., alienating our neighbors--should summon up the courage to speak out more.  

And everyone else should try to take what smart, analytical people say seriously, however much it clashes with the local orthodoxy.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Underestimating children with autism: part III

Several talks here at IMFAR suggest that some autistic deficits may not be as broad as they initially appear.  For example:

1. A talk by C. Keysers (University Medical Center, Groningen) discusses the connection between mimicking facial expressions and feeling empathy, and reports an empirical finding that people with autism can mimic facial expressions, but less rapidly that non-autistics--implying a delay in facial processing. This delay, Keyser suggests, brings broad consequences to social interaction. Broad consequences, but a very specific delay.

2. A talk by B. Lopez (University of the West, England) suggests that apparent Executive Function delays in cognitive planning and flexibility may instead be consequences of problems with working memory, and social-skills related difficulties in understanding directions. Lessen the load on working memory, and make the directions clearer, and autistics do as well as neurotypicals; sometimes even better.

If only we could give people with autism--particularly children in the classroom--a little more time to process things, some prompts for working memory, and clearer instructions...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Do left-brainers make better negotiators? Part II

After day 2 of the IMFAR conference, I’m re-evaluating my earlier answer to this question.

Recent events have reminded me of how the detail-focused contingent of the autistic spectrum often favors rigid, repetitive behaviors or interests, recoiling at unpredictability and change.

And I’ve been contemplating—philosophically, of course!—how such a stance might handicap my negotiating skills:

1. It would prompt me to resist—often out of hand—any deference to others, and to insist—at least implicitly—on making all the decisions myself. After all, others and their decisions are much less predictable to me than I and mine are to myself.

2. It would make it unusually upsetting for me to contemplate that I might not know the answer, or that my judgments and impressions might be inaccurate. I might resent anything anyone might say that occasions such contemplation.

3. It would make it downright excruciating for me to change my mind: for change is especially painful if it involves that which I hold nearest and dearest.

Sometimes, rationality can still prevail, but not always.

It’s an old saw that those who go into abnormal psychology are those who need it the most. The same might be said of autism research. Many of us, even if we aren’t fully on the spectrum, have children who are. What with the strong genetic component of autism, these two factors make us disproportionately likely to have shadow traits…

Sadly, resistance to unpredictability and change is one of them.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Autism subtypes and analytical skills

Francesca Happé (of Kings College, London) opened the 2008 IMFAR (International Conference for Autism Research) conference with a keynote address that argues for something I’ve suspected for years: that autism has many distinct subtypes, and that the autistic spectrum is multi-dimensional.

Happé’s proposed dimensions:

1. The Theory of Mind deficit, or subnormal awareness of other people’s minds.
2. The Executive Function deficit, or impairments in planning and cognitive flexibility.
3. Weak Central Coherence, or a focus on details.

Happé’s scheme recasts my son from “moderately autistic” plain and simple to moderately autistic along dimensions 1 and 3. He’s weak in empathy and strong in details, but unimpaired in the kind of planning and cognitive flexibility considered deficient in many with autism: he aces puzzles like Towers of Hanoi.

But if Happé’s three dimensions capture autism, where do the unusually strong analytic (or “left-brain”) skills of my son--and others of his subtype--come from?

A later talk by A. Harrison (et al, University College, London) suggests a partial answer. Harrison discussed the Framing Effect, or the influence of context on decisions.

Here’s my best recollection of his example:

Frame 1:
An epidemic strikes 600 people. Which containment strategy do you prefer?
1. One in which exactly 200 people will survive.
2. One in which there’s a 2 in 3 chance that everyone will die, and a 1 in 3 chance that everyone will survive.

Frame 2:
An epidemic strikes 600 people. Which containment strategy do you prefer?
3. One in which exactly 400 people will die.
4. One in which there’s a 2 in 3 chance that everyone will die, and a 1 in 3 chance that everyone will survive.

Even though Frames 1 and 2 describe identical choices, non-autistics are about 4 times more likely to pick the first choice in the positive frame (1), and the second choice in the negative one (2). Autistics are far less influenced by framing context.

Harrison proposes that their Weak Central Coherence, or detail focus, explains this hyper-analytic or rational decision process, which contrasts with the more “emotional” heuristics used by non-autistics.

Whether detail focus fully explains my son's hyper-analytic skills--his facility, e.g., with systems of switches, gears, linear equations, and computational subroutines—begs further research.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Off to IMFAR

I'm off, tonight, to London, to the International Conference for Autism Research, where my collaborator and I will be presenting a poster on computerized grammar instruction.

Lots of interesting talks, from neurology, to treatment, to vaccines.

If you have a burning question about autism that you'd like me to try to seek answers to at IMFAR, please post it here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Left-brained parenting

In belated honor of Mother's Day, let's hear it for left-brained parenting.

Here at OILF, this means parenting from the head as much as from the heart.  

It means noticing--particularly where left-brainers are concerned--that lots of discontent and misbehavior come not from unmet emotional needs, but from unmet cognitive ones--a.k.a. boredom.  

It means means recognizing that the emotional processing promoted by so many parenting books--Children are from Heaven; Parenting from the Heart--often doesn't work for certain kids.

It means getting out the chess set or chemistry kit when your left-brainer seems depressed, or having him follow maps and read out directions when he's acting out in the car.

When my autistic son becomes inconsolable when I take away his floor fan after he padlocks shut my backpack, it means tracking down Gelfand's Algebra and immersing him in binary numbers while his pulse slows, his breath deepens, and his face grows calm and focused.

So eager are many of us--egged on by gurus like Gottman and Gray, and by the psychoanalytic-industrial complex--to ascribe deep emotional causes to our children's moods and behavior that we often overlook the power of simple cognitive engagement, or lack thereof.

Particularly--it must be said--if we are not parents, but education experts.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Left-brainers in politics

It goes without saying that political campaigns favor outgoing empathizers. Less obvious is whether they disfavor rule-loving systematizers. Susan Faludi's Op Ed in today's NYTimes suggests that indeed they do, at least here in America.

She contrasts two political types: 

Type 1:
[T]he umpire, who controls the game by application of the rules but who never gets hit. 
[T]he rules keeper, the purse-lipped killjoy who passes strait-laced judgment on feral boy fun.

Type 2:
[T]he participant, who has no rules except to hit hard, not complain, bounce back and endeavor to prevail in the end.
[T]he slugger who ignores the censors, the outrider who navigates the frontier without a chaperone.

Guess which type tends to win elections?

According to Faludi, so damning is type 1 in American culture, and so strongly associated with negative feminine stereotypes, that opponents of strong female candidates have long and successfully branded them as such. Hilary Clinton is no exception. 

That is, Faludi argues, until Clinton's eleventh hour transformation: 

We are witnessing a female competitor delighting in the undomesticated fray. Her no-holds-barred pugnacity and gleeful perseverance have revamped her image in the eyes of begrudging white male voters, who previously saw her as the sanctioning "sivilizer," a political Aunt Polly whose goody-goody directives made them want to head for the hills.

If Faludi is right, then all the worse for those aspiring presidents, etc., who are both weak in empathy and strong in systematizing.  

Assuming, of course, that such left-brained political wannabes even exist.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Do left-brainers make better negotiators?

An article in this week's Economist reports on a Northwestern University study that compares negotiations in which people either empathize with the other side's feelings, or calculate his or her perspective (thoughts, interests, and intent). Perspective-takers were 1 1/2 to 2 times more likely than empathizers were to reach more mutually beneficial agreements.

Left-brainers, with their weak empathy skills, might be assumed to be weak negotiators. But their above-normal analytical skills help them tease apart the various factors relevant to deal-making and calculate the other side's interests.

The Northwestern study thus raises an intriguing possibility:  Perhaps left-brainers--even those with Asperger's Syndrome--are better negotiators than their more right-brained, empathetic counterparts.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Two approaches to learning about proofs: traditional vs. reform algebra

1. Doing them:

Use an indirect proof to prove that the conclusion is true.

If p is an integer and p2 is divisible by 2, then p is divisible by 2. (Hint: An odd number can be written as 2n + 1, where n is an integer.  An even number can be written as 2n.)

If a < b, then a + c < b + c.

If ac > bc and c > 0, then a > b.

(From McDougal & Littell's Algebra I, p. 703; a traditional text).

2. Writing about them; doing easy, concrete ones; and conducting interdisciplinary research:

Name and describe three forms of proof.

Prove that if 7x - 3 = 25, then x = 4.  Write a two-column proof.

Research  Edgar Allan Poe may be best known for his horror stories, including "The Pit and the Pendulum," and for his poetry, including "The Raven." He is also highly regarded as a lierary theorist and as a short story writer.
Edgar Allan Poe set out guidelines for the use of ratiocination in what was to become the modern detective story. Find out what he meant by ratiocination and how he used it in mystery stories such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

(From McDougel and Littell's Integrated Math, p. 407; a reform text).

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Whither grammar: the fuzzy new standards for foreign language instruction

Today's foreign language classes so de-emphasize grammar in favor of "communication" and culture that students are more likely to be:

--conversing in groups in broken, Americanized Spanish
--performing skits in pidgin Italian
--graphic-designing French restaurant menus
or (one of my nephew's recent assignments):
--decorating tissue boxes with German vocabulary

...than learning and practicing grammar.

One force behind this are the National Standards for Foreign Language Education, first published in 1996.  I excerpt them here, with the more remarkable points in boldface:


Communicate in Languages Other Than English

Standard 1.1: Students engage in conversations, provide and obtain information, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions
Standard 1.2: Students understand and interpret written and spoken language on a variety of topics
Standard 1.3: Students present information, concepts, and ideas to an audience of listeners or readers on a variety of topics.

Gain Knowledge and Understanding of Other Cultures

Standard 2.1: Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the culture studied
Standard 2.2: Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the products and perspectives of the culture studied

Connect with Other Disciplines and Acquire Information

Standard 3.1: Students reinforce and further their knowledge of other disciplines through the foreign language
Standard 3.2: Students acquire information and recognize the distinctive viewpoints that are only available through the foreign language and its cultures

Develop Insight into the Nature of Language and Culture

Standard 4.1: Students demonstrate understanding of the nature of language through comparisons of the language studied and their own
Standard 4.2: Students demonstrate understanding of the concept of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and their own.

Participate in Multilingual Communities at Home & Around the World

Standard 5.1: Students use the language both within and beyond the school setting
Standard 5.2: Students show evidence of becoming life-long learners by using the language for personal enjoyment and enrichment.

The national standards thus reduce foreign language to a tool for acquiring information, expressing thoughts and feelings, and obtaining personal fulfillment. Further, they dilute it with aspects of culture that might be more appropriate for anthropology class.  Only one standard, 4.1, acknowledges that language might be interesting in and of itself, and none mention grammar.

Except via intensive immersion, one cannot get far beyond pidgin speech, or understand written language, without explicit grammar instruction. For the grammatically-impaired, even access to culture is limited:  who wants to spend loads of time with someone who either speaks like a three-year-old or mangles his or her sentences?

Of course, we Americans have had a long history of linguistic insensitivity and arrogance, and perhaps today's foreign language standards are simply the latest manifestation.

But now even left-brain learners, many of them highly receptive to grammar, are decreasingly likely to master a foreign language.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Left-brained epiphanies, part III: linguists and foreign language instruction

I've received no new left-brain epiphany stories since last week.  At this past week's linguistics conference, however, I found myself surrounded by people who'd experienced a particular sub-variety of left-brain epiphany.  It has two main archetypes:

Archetype 1:

Once upon a time, a left-brain student diagrams his or her first sentence. While drawing the branches for subordinate clauses, and for subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses, he or she finally gets excited about Language Arts. Language, he or she realizes, is much more than sentences and parts of speech. Underpinning it is systematic structure.  

What are its rules? Where do they come from? How do we learn them?  

A linguist is born.

Archetype 2: 

Once upon a time, a left-brain student takes his or her first foreign language class. The class emphasizes vocabulary, pronunciation, and, above all, systematic grammar instruction.  

The left-brainer starts marveling at how the foreign grammar differs from that of his or her native language. With each new grammar lesson, he or she finds new captivating patterns, both within the foreign language, and in how it differs from his or her native language.  What are the underlying rules and where do they come from?  

A linguist is born.


But, as I'll discuss in later posts, growing resistance to grammar instruction has made it harder for today's left-brainers to experience either of these linguistic epiphanies.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Underestimating people with autism, part II: the prism of language

The widespread assumption that people with autism are mired in the literal (see below), unable to grasp figurative language, strikes me as yet another example of how we constantly underestimate autistic intelligence.

Because most people with autism have subtle linguistic deficits or delays, and because language is the prism through which we view people's intellects, we tend to marginalize as "splinter skills" or "savant skills" or "islets of ability" any autistic talents that nonetheless leap out--whether solving puzzles and Rubik's cubes, taking apart and reassembling doorknobs and thermostats, or calculating repeating decimals and binary numbers. Surely, without commensurate language, the autistic child must be doing all this mechanically and subconsciously.

Particularly guilty of marginalizing autistic strengths are Reform Math devotees, enamored as they are of communicating about math:

He may be able to calculate, but he can't explain his answers, so he must not really understand what he's doing.

Limited language does not mean limited understanding: it simply means a limited ability to convey that understanding to others.

Language itself, where autism is concerned, may be less of an inherent cognitive limitation than we tend to assume. A core deficit in social relatedness may prevent us from paying attention frequently enough, and for long enough intervals, to the language that surrounds us to absorb as much as other people do. It would be like wearing powerful earplugs and only taking them off occasionally.

To set in motion the normal mechanisms of language acquisition, autistic children desperately need to develop their awareness and understanding of other people.

To properly appreciate and nurture autistic strengths, we neurotypicals desperately need to develop our awareness and understanding of people with autism.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Underestimating people with autism: do they really not understand non-literal language?

I'm off to Chicago tonight for my thesis advisor's retirement conference, during which I will answer a whole-hearted "no."

Many children with autism grasp a variety of non-literal uses:

-Ask "Can you pass the salt," and, rather than simply answering "yes," they will pass you the salt.
-Ask "Why do you keep picking your nose," and, rather than giving you a reason, they will take your words rhetorically and stop.
-Ask "are you stuck," and, rather than objecting that math isn't sticky, they will tell you whether the algebra problem has stumped them.

In their own non-literal, figurative speech, autistic people can be quite clever. Here's a recent simile from my son:

Changing passwords so people won’t guess is like hide and seek when I move while other people are trying to find me.

Many autism researchers haven't noticed these abilities, and, beginning with Alan Leslie, have proposed that an impairment in moving beyond literal meanings to higher level meta-representations is inherent to autism.

But autism, like passwords that keep changing and children who keep hiding in different places, is a moving target. Just when we think we have it within our sights, it winks at us and shifts on--sometimes to places we never thought it could go.