Just inside the gabled doors of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, a solitary poster advertises a feat that many here consider the championship of research and language arts prowess: publication in The Concord Review.
Four Lab students were featured in the two most recent editions of the publication to spotlight the best high school research papers in the nation and, increasingly, the world.
About 5 percent of student papers are selected from hundreds of submissions every year. Illinois students wrote just 28 of the nearly 1,000 student papers published during the past 24 years.
Will Fitzhugh, the founder and one-man force behind The Concord Review, called the recent rush of Lab student-authors unprecedented, while Lab officials embraced it as proof that scholarly research — requiring students to delve into a topic and write about it at length — pays dividends.
History teacher Paul Horton, who taught three of the four published students in advanced modern world history class last year, minces no words when conveying his expectations to students and parents alike: By year’s end, students will author a historical research paper that is publishable.
"That scares them to death," said Horton, a published historian.
Yet promising results in the lab with emerging ‘brain stimulation’ techniques, though still very preliminary, have prompted Oxford neuroscientists to team up with leading ethicists at the University to consider the issues the new technology could raise. They spoke to Radio 4’s Today program this morning.
Recent research in Oxford and elsewhere has shown that one type of brain stimulation in particular, called transcranial direct current stimulation or TDCS, can be used to improve language and maths abilities, memory, problem solving, attention, even movement.
Critically, this is not just helping to restore function in those with impaired abilities. TDCS can be used to enhance healthy people’s mental capacities. Indeed, most of the research so far has been carried out in healthy adults.
TDCS uses electrodes placed on the outside of the head to pass tiny currents across regions of the brain for 20 minutes or so. The currents of 1–2 mA make it easier for neurons in these brain regions to fire. It is thought that this enhances the making and strengthening of connections involved in learning and memory.
The technique is painless, all indications at the moment are that it is safe, and the effects can last over the long term.
Dr. Roi Cohen Kadosh, who has carried out brain stimulation studies at the Department of Experimental Psychology, very definitely has a vision for how TDCS could be used in the future: “I can see a time when people plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano,” he says.
Among the most surprising qualities of “Babel No More,” Michael Erard’s globe-trekking adventure in search of the world’s virtuosos of language learning, is that a book dealing with language acquisition and polyglot linguistics can be so gripping. But indeed it is — part travelogue, part science lesson, part intellectual investigation, it is an entertaining, informative survey of some of the most fascinating polyglots of our time.
How is it, Erard asks, that certain people are able to accumulate what for the average person is a daunting number of languages? What are the secrets of polyglots who can master 6, 26, 96 languages? What are their quirks and attitudes? Are their brains wired differently from ours?
Erard, a journalist who writes frequently on language and whose previous book was “Um … : Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean,” begins by visiting Bologna, Italy, the hometown of one of history’s most distinguished polyglots, the 19th-century cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti. The cardinal is said to have known 45, 50, 58 or even more languages, depending on whom you ask. Victorian travelers who met him at ecclesiastical banquets reported that he affably conversed in all directions with foreign visitors in languages ranging from French, German and Arabic to Algonquin and “Californian.” (Lord Byron, who challenged the cardinal to a multilingual contest of profanities, was not only summarily defeated but walked away from the contest having learned a number of new Cockney gibes.) No less a figure than Pope Gregory XVI, in an attempt to catch Mezzofanti out, orchestrated a prank in which he secretly gathered dozens of foreign seminarians and then unleashed them on the unsuspecting cleric, all of them addressing him loudly in a tangle of languages. With much aplomb, Mezzofanti took up the pontiff’s challenge, answered them, and prevailed.
Mezzofanti is a beguiling character. Erard has combed through the cardinal’s archives in Bologna for clues about his practices and proficiency, and “Babel No More” is, among other things, a quest to see what benefits Mezzofanti’s strategies might offer us.
Erard is a “monolingual with benefits,” as he calls himself, “more than a monoglot, much less than a polyglot.” English is his native tongue, and he has learned Spanish, Chinese and Italian at varying levels of proficiency. Here he talks to several world specialists in polyglottery, asking simple but effective questions in an effort to define “multilingual” beyond, say, the definition in the American Heritage Dictionary: “Using or having the ability to use several languages.” How many languages does one have to speak to be considered a polyglot? (At least six seems the consensus.) What does it really mean to speak a language? Knowing a few phrases? Giving a cabdriver directions? Debating politics? Claire Kramsch, a linguist Erard consults, provides wise insight: “Asking how many languages you know is only asking half the question. You should also ask, ‘In how many languages do you live?’”
Friedrich Nietzsche is one of those philosophers you just can’t kill.
He’s been in his grave since 1900, having been silenced by insanity many years before. In 1898, The New York Times ran an article headed, “Interesting Revolutionary Theories from a Writer Now in the Madhouse.” He’s read, as he was then, only by a small minority, many of whom it would be flattering to call eccentric.
Nevertheless, he runs through our social bloodstream. Francis Fukuyama’s remark has the sound of truth: Whether we like it or not, “We continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche.”
Our political leaders are Nietzschean heroes, fuelled by the will to power. In popular fiction and journalism we eternally reinvent the drama of Nietzschean characters who scorn tradition and prove their bravery by setting their own course, as he urged. Defiant originality is sanctified everywhere from art galleries to the business pages. Steve Jobs was perhaps the world’s most renowned Nietzschean character type.
Even with the long life expectancy of giant tortoises, an Aldabra Giant Tortoise named Adwaita blows all others away with a life lasting around 255 years. Estimates put his birth date around 1750, making him an entire generation older than the United States of America.