Friday, January 11, 2013

Language Assets, not Limited Proficiency

You have probably heard the joke:
What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Tri-lingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bi-lingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

Although a joke, it elicits serious questions about whether United States residents, on average, fall below par on multi-lingual ability. It also perhaps relates to the perception that we Americans less often carry a passport than do the people of most other developed countries.

At a meeting this morning with government, foundation, and business leaders, Mayor RT Rybak asked: “Shouldn’t we start to view multi-lingual competency as an asset, rather than a deficit?” A child who speaks a language other than English may need a few years to master the English language. However, the Mayor wondered out loud, once having learned English, doesn’t this child and similar others offer our region some competitive advantages within the globalized economy in which we live?

Greater language facility means greater capacity to understand foreign markets, more ability to communicate with customers in different countries. It means that we can work more efficiently, with fewer errors and greater productivity, in endeavors that require collaboration among people on different parts of the globe.

Speaking two languages, some research suggests, can enhance the “executive function” of children’s brains – that is, the higher level abilities that influence other critical processes such as attention, memory, and motor skills. Executive function enables human beings to initiate and stop actions, to plan for the future, to adapt behavior to changing circumstances, and to form concepts and think abstractly.

Research has shown that students who speak two languages can more accurately solve problems involving misleading cues. In addition, research has indicated that people who know how to use multiple languages, and therefore must manipulate their minds to bring one language to the fore, depending on the situation, develop skills that can support other mental processes and social interaction. Evidence suggests that they can better resolve conflicts; they can more perceptively monitor their environment. A recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience even suggests that speaking two languages might prevent Alzheimer’s and other age-related declines in “neural efficiency for cognitive control processes.”

So, the Mayor may have some good insight. Perhaps all of us should pick up another language, if we want to stay healthy and live longer. And, we should appreciate the collective potential of a multi-lingual Twin Cities, as we move forward in the twenty-first century.

I once printed as many words as I could find in a couple of hours one morning, for the word “peace.” I will print them again:

Paix (French)
Paz (Spanish)
Frieden (German)
ειρήνη (Greek)
和平 (Chinese)
Vrede (Dutch)
Vrede (Afrikaans)
Pace (Italian)
平和 (Japanese)
평화 (Korean)
Paz (Portuguese)
мир (Russian)
أمان (طمأنينة) (Arabic)
Mir (Croatian)
ukuthula (Zulu)
àlàáfíà (Yoruba)
kev sib haum xeeb (Hmong)
nabad (Somali)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy New Year, and Thanks, from Wilder Research!

Many of you gave us assistance, support, and advice during 2012. Together, we tried to answer challenging questions about the best ways to meet community needs. We addressed tough issues – racial and income gaps in education and health, increasing access to good child care, addressing homelessness, and other topics. We collaborated with you to improve the effectiveness of individual agencies and of the nonprofit and government sectors as a whole.

We did all of this in pursuit of our mission to improve the lives of individuals, families and communities through research.

One blog post can tell just part of the story. Wilder Research staff worked on 200+ projects last year, directly serving hundreds of organizations who share our desire to transform lives and improve everyone's quality of life. We produced about 3 reports per week, with many of them posted on our website and the websites of others. During our last complete fiscal year, more than 4,100 people attend our presentations; the media mentioned us 215 times; 24,000+ visits were recorded on our Wilder Research web pages; and YouTube tallied 7,650 views of our videos.

Some of our 2012 highlights appear here – which I share out of appreciation for you, our supporters, clients, funders, donors, collaborators, and friends who enabled us to accomplish all of this and much more. (To see the specific information produced by our 2012 research efforts, along with details on who requested, funded, and collaborated on this work, visit our website.)

Improve access to early learning opportunities. Regarding this critical issue for the future:
  • A Wilder Research report identified trends and gaps in access to early learning opportunities for the 156,000 low-income children age 5 and younger in Minnesota and described the effectiveness of four approaches to expand access. In April 2012, we held a forum to highlight the policy implications of study findings.
  • Wilder Research completed an economic analysis of the value of investing in healthy development and school readiness.
  • Both of these studies have supported early childhood funders and advocates in their collective efforts to improve access to early learning opportunities for low-income children. The work of Wilder Research on this topic led to securing a national 3 year grant from the Kellogg Foundation.

Close the achievement gap. Our collaborative research efforts to improve education at the classroom, school, district, and state levels have included:
  • A study of Response to Intervention (RtI), an evidence-based framework to identify children’s learning issues and intervene early
  • Ongoing evaluation of Project Early Kindergarten, a program in the Saint Paul Schools to improve school readiness among English language learners and low-income children
  • Ongoing evaluation of the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports initiative which trains schools around the state on evidence-based approaches to improve school safety and climate
  • An evaluation of a Saint Paul charter school that is one of the first case studies to document how a school with a predominantly low-income, East African student population addresses challenges posed by being a high-poverty school
  • A longitudinal study of STARBASE Minnesota, aimed at increasing low-income students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math. This study received national attention during 2012.

Identify health inequities and address health system improvements. Several new studies focused on this topic, including:
  • Research showing that poorer health outcomes continue to result from both poverty and lower levels of education. The results of this study will help to address the underlying causes that contribute to racial and income health inequities.
  • A study which identified health care needs of American Indians living in the Twin Cities area.
  • An assessment which documented the role of community health workers to reach Native American, African-American and other underserved populations, and demonstrated the economic value of investing in community health workers.

Integrate mental health and substance abuse prevention systems
  • Wilder Research staff serve as the lead assessment and evaluation experts for a federally-funded statewide strategic planning effort to align substance abuse prevention, mental health, and primary care.

Improve the mental health system of care
  • Wilder Research manages MN Kids Database, a collaborative, web-based integrated data management system to improve school-based mental health services.
  • We have begun a project to explore social indicators of children’s mental health.
  • Wilder Research is also developing metrics related to adult mental health services/access in the east metro, and is working to help hospitals conduct mandated community health assessments.

Engage diverse voices to build corridors of opportunity around transportation lines
  • Wilder Research undertook research on several projects related to Corridors of Opportunity, working to ensure strong, vibrant communities around seven-major transportation corridors under development in the Twin Cities Region.

Ensure a strong nonprofit sector

A new study on nonprofit mergers by Wilder Research and Map for Nonprofits received attention in July at a Greater Twin Cities United Way Leadership Forum, attended by nearly 600 organization leaders and board members, and philanthropists. This first-of-its-kind study identified concrete ingredients for success, if agencies feel that by merging they can increase their community impacts.

Minnesota Compass: Measuring progress, inspiring action

Supported by a collaboration of private Minnesota foundations, this quality-of-life initiative has become the go-to resource for organizations and concerned citizens throughout the state to inform them about community issues. During 2012, we witnessed the value of a new and comprehensive set of Saint Paul and Minneapolis Neighborhood Profiles, for grassroots and neighborhoods groups working to improve their communities. The profiles, which provide neighborhood-level measures including demographics, housing, education, and workforce, have been accessed more than 7000 times.
Also in 2012, Compass accepted a national award from the Community Indicators Consortium and received recognition as “the model others around the world look to” for developing user-friendly community indicators.

Improve early childhood development in the African-American community.

Wilder Research worked closely with the African-American Babies Project, finding a number of risk-factors, including inadequate prenatal care, low-birth weight, and teen pregnancy to be much higher for African-American babies than for other babies born in the metro area. The initiative intends to bring education and services to parents, child care providers, and community members in an accessible, applicable, and culturally relevant way.

Moving forward in 2013

Two events occurred near the end of 2012; you will hear much more about them in 2013: 
  • With a statewide group of 1,000 + volunteers, we interviewed more than 5,000 homeless people. Findings will become available during the coming months.
  • We initiated the “Speaking for Ourselves” project. About 80 representatives of immigrant and refugee ethnic communities and of the organizations serving those communities joined us to plan a study which will learn more about how immigrants and refugees fare in the Twin Cities. 

Never before has research had such importance – for increasing the effectiveness of organizations serving our communities, and for improving community quality of life. We look forward to continuing our work with you – understanding trends, measuring and improving effectiveness, and empowering all of us to meet our aspirations to do good for the community.