Neuroscientific research pushes for linguistic diversity in education

Courtesy of Harvard Graduate School of Education

Gigi Luk, a faculty member and researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shared her research during a talk held at UCR on Tuesday, Jan. 10 in Humanities 1500 about linking neuroscience with bilingualism and the benefits to encouraging bilingualism in an educational setting. “We are building bridges between psychology research and education problems … while using a neuroscientific approach to address these educational problems,” Luk told The Highlander.

Luk and her team of researchers focused primarily on K-12 students with low-income status in order to discern whether socioeconomic status has an effect on learning English as a second language. Furthermore, they wanted to see how this socioeconomic difference can be important in adjusting the educational system in improving the English Language Learners, or ELL, curriculum.

Luk and her team hope to examine their paradigm as to how the education system can be changed to accommodate bilingual students in a way that empowers their different cognitive skills, rather than undermining them for not being able to perform the same way monolingual students would in language proficiency. “It’s actually quite satisfying to think hard about what we know about bilingualism,” she said. “Thus, what can we do to contribute to this existing field and at the same time, how can this knowledge, being inspired by practical problems, be translated back to practice?”

Throughout their research, Luk and her team decided to focus on the language aspect of bilingualism by testing her subjects with auditory and visual exams, rather than focusing on literacy by producing reading and writing exams. After working with educators in producing these exams to assess bilingual students and examine their brain activity, Luk took interest in understanding the social stigma that portrayed bilingualism in a negative light and put more efforts into making bilingualism a positive asset. “Our goal is to not focus on what bilingual children can’t do well,” Luk expressed, “it’s to focus on what they do well and use that to help them academically.”

The team assessed students who were identified as bilingual, and compared their assessment and reading proficiency scores. Luk and her team found a significant connection between socioeconomic status and these test scores, as they examined the different test score results between monolingual students and bilingual English language learner students. Only recently has her team been able to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show different brain activity with monolinguals and bilinguals during the resting state, showing how each group was unique in the cognitive skills they used and performed neither better or worse in different executive functions.

Luk revealed how her interest in neuroscience stems from her being drawn to understanding human behavior. After taking an introductory summer course in psychology, she decided to switch her major from business economics to psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada where she got her undergraduate, masters and Ph.D. degrees. Luk shared in an interview that she wanted to learn more about human behavior rather than the consequences of human behavior and decision-making.

A seminar will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 19 at 2:00 p.m. in HUB 268 by the UCR Office of Research Integrity. Judith Kroll, a distinguished professor of psychology who hosted Luk’s linguistic diversity talk, will be discussing the benefits of bilingualism.

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