Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May 31, 2011 - The Bilingual Advantage

Score one for raising bilingual children! Copied and pasted from today's New York Times:

The Bilingual Advantage

A cognitive neuroscientist, Ellen Bialystok has spent almost 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind. Her good news: Among other benefits, the regular use of two languages appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. Dr. Bialystok, 62, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, was awarded a $100,000 Killam Prize last year for her contributions to social science. We spoke for two hours in a Washington hotel room in February and again, more recently, by telephone. An edited version of the two conversations follows.

Q. How did you begin studying bilingualism?

A. You know, I didn’t start trying to find out whether bilingualism was bad or good. I did my doctorate in psychology: on how children acquire language. When I finished graduate school, in 1976, there was a job shortage in Canada for Ph.D.’s. The only position I found was with a research project studying second language acquisition in school children. It wasn’t my area. But it was close enough.A cognitive neuroscientist, Ellen Bialystok has spent almost 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind. Her good news: Among other benefits, the regular use of two languages appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. Dr. Bialystok, 62, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, was awarded a $100,000 Killam Prize last year for her contributions to social science. We spoke for two hours in a Washington hotel room in February and again, more recently, by telephone. An edited version of the two conversations follows.

Q. How did you begin studying bilingualism?

As a psychologist, I brought neuroscience questions to the study, like “How does the acquisition of a second language change thought?” It was these types of questions that naturally led to the bilingualism research. The way research works is, it takes you down a road. You then follow that road.

Q. So what exactly did you find on this unexpected road?

A. As we did our research, you could see there was a big difference in the way monolingual and bilingual children processed language. We found that if you gave 5- and 6-year-olds language problems to solve, monolingual and bilingual children knew, pretty much, the same amount of language.

But on one question, there was a difference. We asked all the children if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: “Apples grow on noses.” The monolingual children couldn’t answer. They’d say, “That’s silly” and they’d stall. But the bilingual children would say, in their own words, “It’s silly, but it’s grammatically correct.” The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.

Q. How does this work — do you understand it?

A. Yes. There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them.

If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.

Q. One of your most startling recent findings is that bilingualism helps forestall the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. How did you come to learn this?

A. We did two kinds of studies. In the first, published in 2004, we found that normally aging bilinguals had better cognitive functioning than normally aging monolinguals.Bilingual older adults performed better than monolingual older adults on executive control tasks. That was very impressive because it didn’t have to be that way. It could have turned out that everybody just lost function equally as they got older.

That evidence made us look at people who didn’t have normal cognitive function. In our next studies , we looked at the medical records of 400 Alzheimer’s patients. On average,the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language. This didn’t mean that the bilinguals didn’t have Alzheimer’s. It meant that as the disease took root in their brains, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level. They could cope with the disease for longer.

Q. So high school French is useful for something other than ordering a special meal in a restaurant?

A. Sorry, no. You have to use both languages all the time. You won’t get the bilingual benefit from occasional use.

Q. One would think bilingualism might help with multitasking — does it?

A. Yes, multitasking is one of the things the executive control system handles. We wondered, “Are bilinguals better at multitasking?” So we put monolinguals and bilinguals into a driving simulator. Through headphones, we gave them extra tasks to do — as if they were driving and talking on cellphones. We then measured how much worse their driving got. Now, everybody’s driving got worse. But the bilinguals, their driving didn’t drop as much. Because adding on another task while trying to concentrate on a driving problem, that’s what bilingualism gives you — though I wouldn’t advise doing this.

Q. Has the development of new neuroimaging technologies changed your work?

A. Tremendously. It used to be that we could only see what parts of the brain lit up when our subjects performed different tasks. Now, with the new technologies, we can see how all the brain structures work in accord with each other.

In terms of monolinguals and bilinguals, the big thing that we have found is that the connections are different. So we have monolinguals solving a problem, and they use X systems, but when bilinguals solve the same problem, they use others. One of the things we’ve seen is that on certain kinds of even nonverbal tests, bilingual people are faster. Why? Well, when we look in their brains through neuroimaging, it appears like they’re using a different kind of a network that might include language centers to solve a completely nonverbal problem. Their whole brain appears to rewire because of bilingualism.

Q. Bilingualism used to be considered a negative thing — at least in the United States. Is it still?

A. Until about the 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that bilingualism was a disadvantage. Some of this was xenophobia. Thanks to science, we now know that the opposite is true.

Q. Many immigrants choose not to teach their children their native language. Is this a good thing?

A. I’m asked about this all the time. People e-mail me and say, “I’m getting married to someone from another culture, what should we do with the children?” I always say, “You’re sitting on a potential gift.”

There are two major reasons people should pass their heritage language onto children. First, it connects children to their ancestors. The second is my research: Bilingualism is good for you. It makes brains stronger. It is brain exercise.

Q. Are you bilingual?

A. Well, I have fully bilingual grandchildren because my daughter married a Frenchman. When my daughter announced her engagement to her French boyfriend, we were a little surprised. It’s always astonishing when your child announces she’s getting married. She said, “But Mom, it’ll be fine, our children will be bilingual!"

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May 24, 2011 - Getting Big

These little ones are getting so big. Last night, to give Grace a taste of her own medicine, we put Noah in her chair. He seemed very comfortable and wasn't falling over. She didn't mind at all and thought it was funny.Today Grace opted for a wardrobe change after her nap. She picked out the clothes: a nightgown over a pair of jeans. After helping her get the nightgown on she insisted on putting the jeans on completely by herself with no help from me at all. She succeeded! "I did it, Mama! See! I did it!"
Who cares that she put them on backwards?! She's only 2!


Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 22, 2011 - Champagne, Please!

The Welsiens have a lot to celebrate!

We had a G-R-E-A-T visit to the doctor on Friday for joint check-ups and vaccinations for Grace and Noah. Noah is doing great and developing well. He weighed 7.1 kg/15.6 lbs and was 64 cm/25.1 in long. This put him just under 75th percentile for both weight and height. His measurements from when he went to the ER in the US must have been off (he was wearing clothes, and I'm not sure she converted kg to lbs properly) because we expected him to be much bigger than that...but we are thrilled that he is so full and healthy and doing so great. He liked the taste of the oral vaccination he got but was not too happy about the double jabs :( Noah is roughly the weight Grace was at a year and is the length she was at 7 months old. We weren't expecting to have such a big baby, but he is a boy so this is to be expected.

And Grace. Wow! Our little, little peanut had a growth spurt! You've never met two happier parents than us on Friday afternoon. At 27 months old, she weighs 10.4 kg/23 lbs and is 87 cm/34.3 in. THIS IS HUGE! She gained a little over 1 kg since March 2nd (or almost 2.5 lbs), which was an enormous jump for her. Instead of being well, well, well below any percentile on her growth chart, she is now just under 5th percentile. For her length, she is somewhere around 38th percentile, which is also an increase from the 25th percentile before.

When Dr. Nesbitt saw her stats, he came in to the room and said, "Should we open a bottle of champagne?" Having been on the rough road of Grace's weight and eating issues with us, he was just as thrilled as we were. And to what magic do we owe Grace's growth spurt? On the one hand, she is definitely a better - albeit still difficult - eater, in part to some behavior modification we have tried (rewards for eating); and, on the other hand, she has been drinking a lot of "older toddler formula", which we call "Special Milk" in our house, since Noah was born. This combination has helped her along with just being a bit older, more mature and able to understand us when we talk about eating or food.

Grace was also very brave when she had to get two vaccinations - against typhoid and meningitis - and was so, so, so good throughout the whole doctor's visit. Compared to a few months ago when she would start crying in the parking lot of the children's hospital before even going into the doctor's office, she has come a long way and we are so proud of her! These days she is saying and singing anything and everything. She loves to run and jump and dance and play, play, play. She was a little shy going back to school this week after such a long break, but by Friday Ms. Mbata said she seemed back to her old self, and she is on a great sleeping schedule (8pm to somewhere between 6:30 and 7 am straight). Grace is Super-Girl!

In addition to all of that good news, Noah is four months old today! Big boy is so happy. He rolls over and moves around when he is laying down; he smiles and is starting to giggle and laugh; he coos and a-goos and makes very sweet noises in response to people; he reaches for and grabs stuff; he likes to be standing up and is working on sitting up by himself; he eats well and is sleeping better since figuring out he can roll onto his stomach in his sleep (which he prefers); he is generally easy-going and sweet. Super-Girl's little brother is Super-Boy for sure!

Cheers to all! Skål! Happy, happy, happy!


Friday, May 20, 2011

May 20, 2011 - Final Fun

After Bibi and Jen left to go back to New York, we had a few more days to capture a few more sweet moments before heading home to Nairobi. I missed this moment below, but Kristoffer and my parents watched Grace sing to Noah while he was in the exer-saucer. Apparently it was adorable...
I did not miss out on observing Grace have her first tea party with Nene. It was incredibly sweet. I am not sure who loved it more - Grace, or my mom!
Nene said, in true Danish style: Skål! (that means CHEERS!)
Far and Noah were pooped after lots of packing and took a nap at Auntie Meghan's. I have a very similar picture of Far with Grace at the same age. They look just alike and Kristoffer hasn't changed much since then :)
One of our vacation highlights was on our last night. Kristoffer & Tim built a fire, the kids all searched for the best roasting sticks they could find, and we made S'Mores!!! It was the first time for Kristoffer and Grace, and they loved it! For Danes who don't know, s'mores are roasted marshmallows in a graham cracker sandwich with Hershey's chocolate. Also known as a little piee of heaven, we had a blast making and eating them. Then the "kids" - Michael, Sean, Molly, Kristoffer, Tim and even Grace - played Cops & Robbers until it was almost dark! Such a great night!
Grace's first bite!
She loved it! Meghan said, "I've never seen her eat so much of anything!"
After so much fun, it was certainly hard to say goodbye to our American family and friends. A special thank you to Nene and Pops and Auntie Meghan for all they did for us while we were home. We love you!


Thursday, May 19, 2011

May 19, 2011 - Rollie Pollie

For the last couple of nights, Noah hasn't sleep so well. He was waking up even when he wasn't hungry and would go right back to sleep upon pick-up but wouldn't stay asleep when I put him down again. It was a little frustrating and I assumed it was related to either jet-lag or the start of teething (because we are getting to the stage when I will blame everything on teething for several months). Last night, however, I learned that he was waking up because his bed is too small for him. He was trying to move around and roll over in his cradle, and was waking up when he was hitting the sides of it. After many rounds of trying to get him to stay asleep in his cradle last night I put him in our bed; after about 10 minutes of that he rolled over from his back to his stomach. He didn't want to stay there too long so I put him back on his back - mind you he was asleep-ish through all of this - and sure enough a few minutes later he was squirming, squirming, and rolled over again! And so it went, over and over, throughout the night.

So we've got a roller on our hands. One of Kristoffer's colleagues is donating a proper crib to our cause and we will pick it up this weekend so that Noah has more space to move around. It seems like pretty soon this little guy will be starting solid foods and ready for sleep training. Where is the time going?! When I think of him he is still a newborn, but when I look at him, he is almost as big as his sister! And speaking of sisters...Grace is so, so, so sweet with Noah these days. It is really heart-melting. She sings to him, talks to him, shows him stuff. One of the first things she says when she wakes up in the morning is, "Where is Noah, Mama?" and when she comes from school the very first thing she says is, "Hi, Buddy Noah!" He eats it right up. No matter how close she gets or what she is doing to or near him, he is smiling at her. Sibling love. It's amazing!


May 19, 2011 - Play Time

In our last week of vacation, Bibi and Jen came from NYC to visit. The weather was unfortunately cold and rainy so we couldn't do the fun outdoor things we had planned, but we did find an indoor playground to go to, ate a nice lunch out, and even managed a quick stop at Plymouth Rock (which should be called Plymouth Pebble!). Grace was a bit shy with Bibi - sorry about that Bibi! Noah impressed these New Yorkers with his sweet smile and easy-going nature. Next time we are home, we hope we can make it to New York to play with Bibi and Jen in Central Park! Thank you for coming to Plymouth to see us!


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May 18, 2011 - Family Ties

Over Mother's Day weekend, my family had a lot to celebrate. Sean, my sister's second child, made his First Communion and my brother, Mark, sister, Christine, and my mom's best friend, who we still call Mrs. Duffy, came for the occasion. We missed Carrie, Matthew, Nathan, and Kevin too, but it was still a great weekend. We started by waiting outside - on a rare nice day of weather - for Meghan's older kids to get home from school on the bus.

My two guys
Nora, Meghan, Mark, Grace and Christine at varying levels of interest in sidewalk chalk.
Grace and Auntie Tine - who is expecting Baby Phelps in September! - took a little walk to look for the school bus.
Noah and Uncle Mark compared hat sizes. Turns out they both have a big head!
When the big kids came home there was a lot of fun playing - but no time for taking pictures :)

The next day was Sean's big day, and he was a very proud, handsome First Communicant.
Here, with Nene and Pops.
The whole O'Brien clan!
My dear friend Abbey, who I haven't seen in about 3 years, came home for the weekend and made a visit to us at Meghan's house. It was a short, crazy visit but it was so nice to see her and catch up. I think she was a bit shocked by the fact that the last time she saw me I had no kids and now I have two kids!
On Mother's Day, I was a little bit sick with a sinus infection, but Auntie Tine put those mama-in-training skills to work and helped out a lot with Grace and Noah. This boy is all smiles!
For my mom, it was a real treat to be with all four of her children!
When Christine's baby is born, she will become a grandmother for the 9th time!
We decided to let my Dad pose with his family too. Kristoffer for some reason decided to take our picture from the floor. Mark and Meghan could not be contained!
Molly showed Grace the movie, "Pete's Dragon", an old favorite in our family, for the first time!
Uncle Tim took Michael and Sean to spend the day with his mother and family, so it was just Meghan and the girls with us.
Noah was just taking it all in.
I think Mrs. Duffy was trying to avoid the camera, but Kristoffer caught her! She is just one of the fam and we were so happy she came up to visit from Doylestown while we were home. When Grace wanted to find her she would yell out, "Duffy! Duffy! Where did Duffy go?"
Grace and Nora are 9 months apart. Nora is very much the youngest of four and Grace is very much the oldest of two. Nora loved baby Noah so much and was also interested in playing with Grace at first. But Grace was one tough cookie and gave Nora a really hard time until the last day of our trip. Here, though, Grace had a nice moment of not hitting Nora and actually taking turns in the little rocking chair. Good job, girls!
What a lovely family weekend!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May 17, 2011 - Hello Fish!

About two weeks ago, we went to the New England Aquarium in Boston with my cousin Reid, who is Grace's Godfather. The aquarium has long been one of my favorite spots in Boston and I was hoping Grace would really like it. She was very excited on our drive in to the city and gave Reid a running hug when we saw him coming our way. She couldn't believe that the seals were right outside and eagerly watched them swim and play.
The NE Aquarium may very well be one of the worst places in the world for taking pictures - it is so dark inside! So we don't have that many great photos, but here are a few of Grace's new friends...she just loved the penguins!
Grace would also point to some fish in a tank and say, "Hello, Fish!" Right about that time Noah turned into a chatterbox and seemed to be mimicking her. Here he was literally telling me, "A-gooo!"
It took a little while for her to brave the cold water, but Grace did eventually pet a starfish with Far. There was also an amazing exhibit on small sharks and sting rays and she actually got to "pet" one of them!
At the very end of our visit, Grace had a great time doing one thing she always loves to do: shop! While we didn't buy her anything, she was thrilled to walk around the store and show Reid all the things she liked, including "some onesies for Noah!"
Reid treated us to a lovely lunch at Legal Sea Foods before saying goodbye, so I got my New England Clam Chowdah fix. It was the perfect outing!

Monday, May 16, 2011

May 16, 2011 - Home Again

We arrived in Nairobi on Saturday night after a wonderful the second leg of our trip, four weeks in Massachusetts. We were able to see many our of family and friends in that time and appreciated all of the traveling that other people did to accommodate us. We're sorry to those of you we missed and hope that our next trip to the US widens our net a bit further. I have a few blogs and pictures to post of our time in the US which I will do so over the course of the next week (now that we're back in Kenya, pictures takes A LOT longer to upload!).

In the meantime, we were really happy to arrive back to our own house after being away for six weeks. Grace and Noah were excellent on our 24-hour trip and there were no glitches getting home at all. Charles was waiting at the airport with our car and Rose had cleaned our house the day before in anticipation of our arrival. Grace kept exclaiming yesterday, "I'm at Grace's house!" Unfortunately, our old foe JET LAG has set in. Grace had a pretty normal schedule yesterday but woke up at 10:00 pm last night, after only 2 1/2 hours of sleep, and didn't go back to sleep until 2 am. So now, it is 9:00 am and I have not been able to wake her up. Looks like she won't be going back to school just yet. We'll try again tomorrow!

Last night Grace and Noah had their first bath together, with Noah sitting in the Bumbo seat. He initially seemed against the idea of bathing with his sister, but after a few minutes he settled in and she loved it: "I'm taking a bath with Noah!"

The "next big thing" in our life will be finding a new job for Kristoffer, whose contract with WFP ends in November. We've got six months to land a new job and relocate, and are currently pursuing any and all possibilities. An international move with two little ones? I'm sure I'll report on several anxiety attacks in the future. For now, your best wishes and sending good "job karma" our way will be appreciated. Stay tuned!


Monday, May 2, 2011

May 2, 2011 - Blessed Boy

Yesterday, May 1, 2011, Noah Dean was baptized at St. Augustine's in Andover, MA (the church where I made my First Communion, my Confirmation, where Kristoffer and I were married and where Grace was also Baptized). The day before that we had a party for him at my parents house and were happy to introduce him to many friends and family members. It was actually quite a busy weekend, and I don't feel I really had the time to stop and reflect so much about the significance of Noah's baptism. But after some quiet time this morning I am able to not only post pictures of our weekend, but also to reflect on what a big day it was for all of us.

During a difficult pregnancy with Noah, there was more than one moment when we thought that we would lose our baby. At 7 weeks pregnant, all signs indicated that I was having a miscarriage and I was even offered a surgical procedure to clean out my reproductive system. One week later, though, our little guy was still fighting. When I was 25 weeks pregnant and bleeding heavily, we thought the worst was happening, but again, Rocky was a fighter indeed. After that hospitalization I had infection after infection after infection and was even hospitalized once more. Noah was born healthy and one of the first things Kristoffer said to him was, "I didn't think I was going to get to meet you!" Unfortunately he was incredibly sick from two to three weeks old and gave us the worst scare of all! Given all of that, for our family to stand on the altar of the church yesterday and have this beautiful boy be baptized...I just feel it was a miracle! Nothing short of faith, hope and a lot of love brought Noah into this world, healthy and happy, and we are so grateful to God for this blessed boy.

Noah meeting Aunt Nina and Uncle Jack
Grace's Godfather, Reid, holding Noah
Grace decided to help Noah open some presents
My friend Julie came to meet Noah and sign his Baptism portrait
Our dear friend Gabe and his family also loved the little guy
Meghan and Matt, who visited us in Kenya early on in my pregnancy with Noah, were happy to see the baby on the outside
We had fun playing with the Andersen Family (with Brady - age 2 - and Jack - 5 months)
Keilah Noel held Noah too (her mom Cheryl was my music teacher for many years!)
Me with my babies, Cheryl with hers
Uncle Tim - Noah's Godfather - got some snuggles when the party quieted down
At the church, my Godmother, Aunt Linda, holding Noah
Fr. O'Leary asking us what we wish for our son
Godparents Auntie Meghan and Uncle Tim
Grace was a very serious sister during Noah's baptism and Noah was nothing but sweet smiles
Molly loves Grace!
Thank you to the Noon Family for coming (and to Joanna for taking all these pictures!)
What a special, lovely weekend we had. God Bless Noah Dean!