Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tip #62: Learn (or relearn) another language

Well, it took me some time, considering my job is precisely teaching a foreign language, but here it is. I'm going to tell you how new advances in neuroscience are showing that the brains of bilingual individuals are "nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer" (From TIME, How the Brain Benefits from Being Bilingual). And, according to this other article,  The Bilingual Brain, it seems that the effects on the brain of knowing another language help children be able to focus more and concentrate longer during school tasks, but the benefits are also extended to adults, not only because of the already mentioned delay in dementia and Alzheimer's but also because bilingual adults seem to have a more dense gray matter, which helps them process language and communication better. One possible explanation, according to the same article,  is that bilinguals may get more oxygen and blood to the brain and keep nerve connections healthy, which, in my view, could possibly benefit the whole person.

And today I'm going to share with you a TED talk, which is not really about all this, but it is still fascinating. It describes a start up called Duolingo, which you may have heard about. As a professor of Spanish I prefer to think that to learn a language it is still better to take a class, or better yet, take a class in the country where the language is spoken, but I definitely see a lot of pedagogical value in Duolingo. And I do like that it is free. At the moment, you can learn Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, English and German, but they plan on adding more languages. What I like is that it is very simple, and it is also fun (as they have taken cues from gamification), and you can create a team with friends so you can motivate each other.

But besides checking out Duolingo, I would like you to see the talk because, to me, it is very inspiring. The speaker is a wiz kid from Guatemala who is one of the computer scientists who invented the "Captcha" system. He explains that part in detail, so I will not say more here. But I am extremely excited to see how he (and his team at Carnegie Mellon) have taken the idea of all (millions) of us doing just a little (typing a few words, spending 10 seconds on it) and using that labor to actually digitize old texts. And with Duolingo, his goal is to have everyone translating the web. I'm not sure that Duolingo can do that, but I have a feeling that he knows what he's talking about.

Although I also see the potential for this kind of enterprises to obliterate many jobs in the future, maybe even mine, I still see this type of projects as the beginning of something remarkable which will be helpful for all humanity. For example, in medicine, when we can use the data from every single patient who has something like cancer, we can probably start seeing more clearly patterns which will help us find a solution to it. I already touched a bit upon this when I talked about abundance, and this talk reinforces that idea.

Here's the talk, with the subtitles in Spanish, so we all start practicing:

And do not get discouraged if you feel like you are too old to learn a new language. I think that that's one of the beauties of Duolingo, that they make it simple for everyone, and, if nothing else, treat it as a game, which is also very good for you, as we will see in an upcoming tip.

Let me know if you have tried it already. And, as always, thanks for being there, on the other side of the screen, for me.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Tip #61: Be open to new teachers

Last May, I saw a documentary named Living on One Dollar. It looked like something that could be useful for my classes, as it was about four young Americans traveling to Guatemala, and experiencing the life of the poor in that country. Well, I really enjoyed it, did show it to some of my students, who also really liked it, and then got to work trying to find the funding to bring the two young creators (two of the students in the film) to our campus so our students could have a chance to meet them and be inspired. I'm glad to say that they will be in Sacred Heart University this Wednesday (Sept. 18th, 2013) at 7:00 pm, just in case any of you also want to see them. But, fret not if you can't, as they also happen to have a TED Talk that they gave in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last year, before the launching of their documentary and the campaign which has followed,

There are many inspiring messages for young people from their adventure, like follow your dreams, don't just think about things but do something about them, friends together can do incredible things, and so on. But in this tip, I just wanted to point out something that Zach Ingrasci mentions in the TED Talk. Both he and Chris Temple were Business students and their motivation for going to Guatemala was to try to find a solution to poverty by first understanding how the poor really live. So, they knew the theory, they wanted to live the practice. But, among many other surprises, they found that the poor themselves became actually their best teachers. They showed them what needs to be done in order to survive and how they used ingenuity, wisdom, and tools like cooperation to achieve it. I hope you have a chance to watch their talk (aptly subtitled "The Financial Secrets of the Poor.") explaining it much better then me.

I don't think we need to travel anywhere to find teachers and lessons to be learned around us. But we do need to have our hearts open to them. We often dismiss the known or obvious or, sometimes, do not consider that others can show us anything new, but we need to listen with love, wonder and patience until the lessons are revealed.
In the same manner, I do believe that we all are teachers and we have to remember that our message or our actions will touch people in ways that are not known to us. We just need to keep saying it.