Vaclav Smil on Climate Change

Dr. Smil Introduces His Book to Bill Gates

Climate change has been on my mind a lot lately. The topic seems to be in the media recently especially with the publication of Bill McKibben’s Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? and David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth. I am planning to read both of them. 

A colleague referred me to another book on the subject, Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Natureby retired University of Manitoba professor, Vaclav Smil. Smil is a polymath and the 2013 book has an academic tone being published by MIT Press. I skimmed through most of the initial chapters that define the topic and read in depth the final chapters look to the future. Bill Gates is a big fan of his and after reading his book and watching a few of his videos, I am too!

The term “harvesting the biosphere” refers to humanity using the earth to survive. This includes agriculture, mining, fishing, animal husbandry, construction, transportation, etc. Humanity has transformed the planet “…no species has been able to transform the Earth in such a multitude of ways and on such a scale as Homo sapiens. 

Human Diet

The changes have been so profound and because of the short lifespans of humans, we are not conscious of them. Dr. Smil puts these changes in perspective looking at the problem in a systems and statistical manner. Below are my notes from my reading:

  • Humans have reduced the biosphere’s phytomass (all plants, including photosynthetic plankton) by 35-40% through the invention of agriculture. This includes almost 100% of the best soils in large, populated nations and in 2010, farms occupied 12% of all ice-free land. 
  • Population growth will put a big strain on the earth’s resources. Growth has slowed since its 2% peak in the 1960s and its annual addition of 90 million people annually in the 1980s. UN estimates that we will pass the 10 billion mark in the 21st century. From 1900 to 2000, total human biomass has increased 3.7 times. This is not only in numbers, but the sizes of individuals. For example, the average 20-year old male in Japan in 1900 weighed 53 kg, but in 2000, the average is 65.4 kg. Smil also takes 1into account when quantifying human biomass by assigning a greater average to the USA (33% obesity rate in 2000) than Japan (3.9% obesity rate). The mean weight for the 6.1 billion humans in 2000 was 50 kg. 
  • Animal husbandry also has severely transformed the planet. There are 4.3 billion domesticated animals including 1.65 billion cattle. This has played a part in the reduction of Earth’s wild fauna. 
  • Smil and others are against biofuels because it contributes to increased loss of forests. 
  • I was surprised about Smil’s focus on household food waste because I didn’t know the scale of the problem. Waste in the USA increased from 28% of total food supply in 1974 to 40% in 2004. UK households waste 31% and even Japan, the least wasteful affluent country, loses 25% of its food supply. This food waste not only occurs at homes, but in the harvesting and distribution of food. This is unacceptable, especially in light of obesity rates and the over indulgence of citizens in affluent countries. I would like for us to reduce waste in our school cafeteria.
  • He is pessimistic on future production of the oceans. Acidification, higher temperatures and over-harvesting have permanently decreased ocean productivity. 

Smil’s prescription for minimizing human claims on the biosphere’s productivity are as follows:

  1. Stabilize population at < 9 billion
  2. Optimize agriculture thru best practices including crop rotations instead of monoculture
  3. Average food requirements per capital should be limited levels that support healthy and long lives instead of excessive carnivore and obesity-inducing diets.
  4. Pay more attention to post harvest food losses and household food waste.
  5. Develop staple grain crops that fix nitrogen.
  6. Properly manage forests and live within production capacities of forests for wood output. 
  7. Wood demand should be set by maintaining sensible material comforts rather than striving to perpetuate extravagant consumption delivered in “wasteful throw-away packaging”.  In one of his videos, he mentions the $20,000 bathroom re-model that many North Americans go through. Who needs a $20,000 bathroom for a toilet, bathing and grooming?
  8. It may be unrealistic, but to share resources to reduce existing inter- and intranational inequalities. 
  9. Support research leading to new tree cultivars that combine superior productivity with hardiness. 

I also liked that he included the benefits from increased CO2 in the atmosphere and increased temperatures in his analysis of climate change. Will these increase plant productivity? Will the intake of carbon by forests increase or decrease? How will a warmer and more acidic ocean impact marine phytoplankton? 

I will be watching his videos and looking into further publications from him.

Visit to the Central Trades School in Rakovica

It was an uplifting experience yesterday to visit the Central Trades School (Srednja Zanatska Škola) in the Belgrade suburb of Rakovica. The school is a government initiative that focuses on social rehabilitation and job training for vulnerable students in the Belgrade metropolitan area. Single mothers, refugees, victims of domestic violence, people with disabilities, Roma children, etc. are the target population. Most of the students are from ages 17-20 and include about 30% Roma.

The school was hosting a school year culminating fair, called, “We Can Overcome the Boundaries Together.”  There were food stands, music and dance performances, judo exhibitions, craft bazaar, etc. I toured the school and met with the teachers and students. I was invited as the representative of the International School of Belgrade. This year our students through the Community Action and Service Program at our school have been regularly working with the severe special needs students in the garden and green house program of the school. The idea stemmed from one of our students, whose parents through their work in the diplomatic community, became aware of the school.

My daughter Ocean poses in the school’s greenhouse

The school’s goal is to train and find job for their students. To that end, they have working auto mechanic garages, welding workshops, beauty salons, and even a small restaurant. Students also do internships with local businesses to help them make the transition into employment. An article in the Studio B web site stated that 40% of their students find jobs.

It is nice that the Serbian government supports these kinds of schools. A society can be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members. I was also impressed with the positive spirit of the students and teachers and especially, the dedication of the faculty. Everyone I met was very dedicated to students and felt good about making a difference

ISB Students At the Bazaar of the Central Trades School

The People I Work With Everyday

ISB Administration Team - 2011

I am fortunate to work with outstanding people. I’ve really enjoyed the professional sharing, support, and camaradarie of the administration team at our school.  We’ve all had different experiences in education and are from different parts of the US and the world. This diversity of experiences and backgrounds has really helped me improve and grow as an educator. I appreciate the support, honest feedback, and trust we have.

From left to right are school director Eric Sands, lower school principal Tim Moynihan, IT director “Bane” Nikolic, Business Manager Zhana Hasanovic, yours truly, and MS Coordinator, Mark Noonan.

Latest Reading: Three Cups of Tea – One Man’s Mission To Promote Peace…One School at a Time

I finally got around to reading Greg Mortenson’s book about his work in Pakistan. The book was on the New York Times Bestseller’s list for a long time. I won’t give a summary of the book but a few of my impressions. It was a good time to read the book to coincide with my trip to the Middle East. Mortenson is an “global nomad” having grown up in Tanzania and it shows in his ability to easily adapt to a foreign culture. He is being touted by the US media as the foremost authority of life in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the US military commanders are consulting with him. Is it that hard to take time to learn the language and customs of a country. He dives right into the culture of the Kashmir / Himalaya region by learning Pashtun, wearing the traditional costumes and figuring out the power hierarchy in the villages where he is trying to build schools. I think his global background gave him the mind set to do this very quickly, having grown up in a culture different to his own parents.

My Father-in-Law Buys Dates in a Market in Manama, Bahrain (December 2010)

I just don’t understand why the US foreign service and military doesn’t have an army of Greg Mortensons. It should be mandatory to use long-time in-country expats to understand how the US government form its policies and relationships with other nations. The US should be putting more effort and resources into developing people like him. I feel strongly about maintaining a strong military, but the US should put more into money into programs like Mortenson’s, like building schools in areas that need them. I feel sorry for those kids in the US Armed Forces that have never left the US, being thrown into situations where they need to interact with local civilians. We are going about it all wrong.

My visit to Bahrain the past two weeks has changed my perspective to the Middle East. I know that Bahrain is only a small part of the region, and is known for its tolerance, but this is a region that we can do much more to help, other than military intervention. They Muslims are ordinary people with normal hopes, dreams, fears, emotions, etc. Greg Mortenson has found this out, why don’t more Americans do so also?


Transformational Leadershop – Fran Prolman

Another workshop from the CEESA Conference. The big idea of the workshop is the leader changes as the followers also change. Both leader and participant raise to higher levels of motivation.

Dr. Fran Prolman Led the Workshop


Transformational Leadership can be categorized into three areas.

1) Relationship Building – Getting outside of ourselves and seeing their point of view.  

2) Taking a Risk – I can re-invent myself in my work. I can re-invent myself all the time. Always growing.

3) Creating a Culture – I can create a culture of learning, whether it be a hostile environment or nice environment.

Part I. Relationship Building

Fran likes to give us authors and book titles.  Margaret Wheatley “Turning to One Another” and “Leadership in a New Science” – Water will always finds its way to the ocean. It has the power to reshape granite. It will always finding a way to the ocean. It is a nice metaphor.  

Ways to build transformational leadership and collegiality:

Teaching is an isolating experience. The key is to get teachers to observe one another, sharing expertise at faculty meetings, asking for help,

A nice idea to do is to build collaborative team time built right into the schedule. 

Another good author is Susan Scott with her book Fierce Conversations.

Another good book is the “Fred Factor” by Mark Sanborn.   “How can I be the best Principal you have ever had?” In this book, he writes about the “B’s”

  • Be real
  • Be interested (It is not about me, it is about you as a transformational leader.) Fran Polman interviews people at cocktail parties. Does the person notice they do not know anything about? When this happens, the other person is now ready for a two-way relationship. Another example is when a student comes into your office between classes.
  • Be a better listener

When someone comes in an asks if they have a minute, I ask them what the topic is. Then I either go for it or ask them to set an appointment.

  • Be empathic – I want to see things through your lens. 1/3 of any group of adults are dealing with something really hard (illness, divorce) – they need support 1/3 they are healing from the abyss – 1/3 in a state of illusion
  • Be honest
  • Be helpful
  • Reinvent yourself regularly – Increase you Implementation Quotient – increase your capacity

What I am taking from this session in the three categories?

1) I am going to focus on taking the viewpoint of younger teachers.

2) I like the idea of postponing a conversation by setting an appointment, but first asking what the topic is.

This is a strength of mine.

Part II. Risk-Taking

Another good author is Carol Dweck and her book “Mind Set” defines two mindsets, the first being a performance goal versus a learning goal. The first mindset, the people will not take risks because of afraid of failure. An attribute of success after school is to take risks. Michael Fullan wrote in “Implementation Dip” that there will be a big descent after the implementation to the abyss of change and teachers will play out according to their personalities and maturity. When the group hits rock bottom, they begin to think about what exactly support systems they need to get back up to the top. This is “creative tension” is what cranks up the creativity. You as an inspirational leader work the hardest at the bottom to bring them to a higher level.  This also applies to new families to the school. It is a big change for them to entrust you with their child and they will struggle at first.  The time frame is 3 – 5 years

The degree to which the leader challenges assumptions, seeks feedback from others.

Eric Weihenmayer is a blind mountain climber who leads blind children to high peaks. He used to be a MS teacher, wrestling coach, and the only blind person ever to climb Mnt. Everest.

Another transformational leader is Ben Carson, who was raised in the ghettos of Detroit and a single mother with a third grade education. Her mother made him to read a book a week and write a report on it. He is the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at John Hopkins Hospital at age 32.  He believes in THINK BIG (talent, honesty, Insight, Nice, Knowledge) and then (Books, In-depth learning, God) His most recent book is “Take the Risk: Learning to Identify, Choose, and Live with Acceptable Risk. He uses this decision making process with

What am I taking away from this session?

1) Talk to the teachers about the Michael Fullan descent and ascent change before we do the 1:1 lap top program.

2) Seek feedback AND data from the staff regarding the schedule.

3) Go with the filming of teachers

I would say I am more conservative and less of a risk-taker.

Science Podcast

The Panel Members

On Wednesday November 25 we held a discussion about science and science education. A panel of science educators, writers, and scientists discussed the challenges of engaging young people with scientific fields. The over one hour discussion that included questions and comments from the audience, hit on topics such as society’s message to young people in general and girls in particular, that making money is more important that knowledge and being educated. Other topics addressed were what parents can do to raise their children’s interest in science, finding a balance for educators between exposing students to the wonder of science with instilling in them the discipline for long hours of study and concentration. If you are interested in these and other topics with science, I encourage you to listen to the podcast.

You can listen to the podcast here.

Brian Gorodetsky: Brian is from Vancouver, Canada and a IBO Diploma graduate. He has a Bachelors degree in Microbiology from the University of Alberta and a PhD in Organic Chemistry from the Canada’s leading materials institute at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. His research interests were specialized in nanotechnology. He worked for 10 years as a research scientist in fields that ranged from oncology to the design of smart materials and is currently an advocate of  science education in Belgrade, Serbia. He is a new teacher at Crnjanski High School and is responsible for organizing an exciting hands-on environmental science class. In addition, Brian is also a pilot and is learning to navigate the skies over Serbia.   

Andrew Bridges:Andrew is a longtime reporter, editor and writer with a keen interest in science journalism. Andrew currently works as a science writer for Sally Ride Science, the science education company founded in 2001 by America’s first woman in space. He has written and edited multiple science books for readers ages 8-12. His latest is Clean Air, published in August by Roaring Brook Press. Previously, Andrew worked as a medical and science reporter for The Associated Press, as well as for various newspapers and Web sites, both in the United States and Europe. Andrew has a bachelor’s degree in history and Italian literature from Dartmouth College and a master’s degree in Italian literature from the University of California, Los Angeles. Andrew, wife Maury and son Roland have lived in Belgrade since 2007.

 Luiz Mello    : Luiz Mello     is from Curitiba, Brazil. He has a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences with a double major in plant physiology and Science education. He holds a certificate in Instructional Technology from Harvard University and a master’s degree in Education from Framingham State College. His experiences include 6 years as an ESL instructor and 2 years as a web programmer. He is currently in his 4th year teaching internationally, and in his second year at ISB as our biology teacher. He is married to Betina and his favorite hobbies are playing and coaching soccer.

 Ivan B. Jovanović, DVM, MS, PhD: Ivan was born and educated in Belgrade, Serbia. He graduated from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Belgrade, where he also obtained his Masters and PhD in Animal Morphology and Physiology. He teaches Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to graduate and postgraduate students at FVM. His primary field of research is the biological role of
Selenium and other micro-elements in health and sickness of animals and men.

Branka Srekovic Minic: Branka is from Belgrade, and has a double Serbian/French nationality. She has been working at ISB for 10 years, and has taught MYP French and Humanities. She is currently coordinating the IB MYP and DP, and is a Personal Project Coordinator. She is teaching DP HL History, and is Humanities Head of Department. She is working for the IB as the MYP school authorization and evaluation team member, and is a trained IB MYP Workshop Leader. She is married and has twin daughters who are enrolled at ISB’s grade 11 as the IB DP candidate students.

Chris Slough: Chris is from Colorado, USA and has a B.S. in Physics. He later earned a Masters in Education from the College of New Jersey. He has 10 years teaching experience, 8 in international schools. Besides teaching in Paraguay and Kuwait, he most recently was a science teacher here at the International School of Belgrade. He is currently on sabbatical.

Bill Kralovec: Bill is the Secondary Principal at the International School of Belgrade and will be the moderator of the discussion. He is a former science teacher and has spent a lot of time roaming the forests of South America.



Moodle PD – September 15, 2009

John Prepares a Video for the Group
John Prepares a Video for the Group

John went through his International School of Prague Moodle pages. It started there as a grassroots movement with a small group of teachers. They are in Year 5 of implementation and obviously far ahead from us. He said we are in good shape and can avoid the mistakes his school made in implementation. Things I learned:

All faculty at his school need to do the skills below (Moodlic Literate)

  • log in to Moodle
  • upload a file
  • participate in a forum
  • participate in a wiki

A Minimal Requirement for teachers on their pages is to post all homework assignments, and have resources (worksheets – word docs – web links.)

No requirements for teachers to post their grades. They are moving to a Admin Software that will do this for them.

ESL kids love forums on Moodle and they can write at their own pace and they don’t stand out in a classroom environment. Want the forums to be a safe environment.

New teachers when they are hired, they go through an orientation on Moodle. They get all the orientation information, and participate in forums. It would be a good mentoring method.

Administration team, committees, PTA, Board of Trustees put all of their minutes, etc. on Moodle.

All that is produced at the school through Moodlic, it is the property of the school and it gets archived. The teacher can take the course with them, although it is not compatible with Blackboard.

At ISP, Moodlic is only for teachers and students, not parents. Students can share password with the parent. The idea is that parents can’t walk into a classroom.

ISP has turned off the chat and the messenging, because too much of temptation for students.

Recommend everyone to 320 gig portable hard drive to back up their work. All students have a USB flash drive to take with them.

Teachers responsible for backing up their moodle pages.

Google docs can be integrated into Moodle. ISP is gmail. No email accounts for students.

Faculty Meetings minutes, etc. on Moodle Course. The forum occurs before the meeting.

Faculty Forum – Before the faculty meeting, Prinicpal sends it out.

Trainings – Beginning of the year 3 hours, 1 and 1/2 for veterans. The Moodle trainers (two teachers) and then ICT trainer. Give a stipend to those mentors.

Cyber Cafe – One time per week, not required for teachers to go to. This is a PD for tech stuff.

One problem is too many things going on and too many portals for people to access.

Upper School Calendar for Homework – Portal for parents (Principal and Counselor) – Talk to teachers –

One portal – email/calendars/

One portal – Moodlic

One portal – WebEIM (or alternative Admin Software)

Teachers self police and no administrator moving through the pages to see who is doing them.

Leadership Team Course Excellent!

When a student enrolls, they fill out a form allow their children to be photographed on put on the website.

Teachers need to de-clutter their documents on their moodle pages as the years go by.

ISB PD “Digital Citizenship” September 14, 2009

The Hotel Zira Had a Superb Internet Connection
The Hotel Zira Had a Superb Internet Connection

Our facilitator today is John Mikton. I’ll be blogging my notes from the conference. He is from Geneva, Switzerland and the Technology Director at the International School Prague. He is an experienced educator who has worked in China, Switzerland, Japan, and Tanzania. Before teaching, he worked in advertising. He is an inspirational speaker and I am looking forward to spending the next two days with him. Here is a link to his website.

“Change is not merely necessary to life- it is life.” Alvin Toffler

Did You Know? We watched the video, “Did You Know” which is the latest version of  “Shift Happens.” Some of the interesting facts presented were as follows:

  • There are 31 billion searches on Google every month. In 2006 it was 2 billion.
  • A NY Times daily edition has more information than a person in the 1700’s was exposed to in a lifetime.

Twitter: I helped Nadia and Janna to learn a bit about Twitter and to get accounts. It is interesting that adults use twitter much more than teenagers. I downloaded “TweetDeck” so I can have twitter on my desktop without being logged into the twitter page.

Creators and Interactive: Good point made by John, that adults are the “gatekeepers” for the teenagers creating content on line. When his school did the 1-to-1 lap top program they gave the computers to the PARENT, not directly to the students. The message was, the school is lending a computer to the parent who will let the child use it. Young people at times need this before that put stuff up online.

Strategies With Teachers Working On Laptops: Little strategies to assist teachers when students have laptops in class.

  • Laptops are in a circle and facing out so teacher can see.
  • Turn off the airport.
  • Flip down the monitor.
  • Software that allows teacher to view the student screens. Can bring it up in front of the class.


Daniel Pink Author of the “A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future?” ( and we are moving to a conceptual age. There are six minds and 6 essential senses of the future:

1) Design – Moving beyond

2) Story

3) Symphony

4) Empathy

5) Play – Bringing humor to businesses and products

6) Meaning

This is similar to Howard Gardner’s latest book.

I lost a bit of my notes from losing the connection. We watched a couple of segments from “Growing Up Online” a documentary about teens and the internet. One pertinent idea, that the divide between generations is the biggest since the invention of television. The issue of privacy is huge in international schools. It is important to view privacy also in the lenses of different cultures. For example, US parents would want the school to act upon students outside of school spraying grafitti on a wall in the city. European parents might feel not to have the school involved.

How do I safeguard my privacy?

  • Some of my photos in our account are private.
  • I don’t put my credit card information, phone number, address.
  • There are some things in my life I do not blog about.
  • My wife screens photos of her that I want to post on line.
  • I try not to blog about my future schedule, giving times and places where I will be.

Facebook – The default settings for facebook are open publicly. You need to be 13 years old to have a facebook page. John’s advice for facebook is below:

Facebook Safety Tips

The following safety tips are important to keep in mind, whether you are using Facebook or one of the other social networking sites:

  • Don’t reveal your password to anyone.
  • Check your privacy settings on a regular basis, and make sure that they accurately reflect your level of comfort.
  • Don’t reveal any personal information to someone you are communicating with online. Personal information includes your real name, address, phone number, and credit card information. It’s not a good idea to reveal where you work or go to school, either, since this information can be used by Internet stalkers to locate you.
  • Anything you post online can be read by anyone who visits that Web site. Consider that this information can be seen by your parents, the police, or a current or prospective employer. If you are not sure you want the information shared with any of them, don’ t post it.
  • People you are interacting with online may not be who they say they are.
  • Exercise extreme caution if you decide to meet someone in person you have been interacting with online. Arrange to meet in a public place, and don’t go alone.
  • Report any violations of Facebook’s terms of use immediately.
  • Any inappropriate communication should also be reported to Facebook administrators promptly.

10 Settings Every Facebook User Should Know
the video

Next topic is Cyber Bullying. This has been around for a long time. The tool they use is different. John showed us two public service announcements from

There is no good blocking software, the best method is to educate yourself and to engage your children in learning about the dangers.

Many of the themes of Digital Citizenship are very important.

1) Digital Health and Wellness – Are we providing the right kind of chairs, should age 4 students have microwaves from cell phones in their ears.

2) Digital Law – Hacking and sending nude photos are two things teens may do that they are not aware of the consequences.

Other topics – Do not blame it on the computer, the problem is social and cultural.

Case Studies –

1) Student steals password and username from another student and harasses a teacher on Moodlic.

Expel from the school because teacher involved and clearly against our Acceptable Use Policy.

2) Group of students posts videos on youtube of them drinking, insulting passengers on train and all students are underage.

School did nothing, parent contacted police, and they were punished by local authorities.

3) Student has different identities online, which are diff gender, traits, etc.

Conversation, but no official punishment from the school.

My overriding principle is to inform the parents because I would like to know if it were my son or daughter involved in one of the above. It is another question of school punishment or not.

Outliers: The Story of Success

The Administrative Team of the International School of Belgrade is reading and discussing the book, “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell. We annually select a book to discuss throughout the year. Last year Last year we read the management book, Influencer: The Power To Change Anything.   Click on the link to see my notes on it. 

This post will be notes from my reading of Outliers and discussions with my colleagues. I want to focus on the implications for our students, teachers, and parents of our learning community.

The best introduction to the book is the interview below by PBS journalist, Charlie Rose. He talked with Gladwell in December of 2008 about his latest book, Outliers.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “A conversation with Malcolm Gladwell“, posted with vodpod

The Benefits of Bilingualism

For Kids, Two Languages Can Be as Easy as One

By Peter West
HealthDay Reporter by Peter West
healthday Reporter
Thu Jul 9, 7:04 pm ET

THURSDAY, July 9 (HealthDay News) – European researchers are contesting the assumption that bilingual toddlers have more trouble learning language skills than children who know just one language.

“While the remarkable performance of children acquiring one language is impressive, many children acquire more than one language simultaneously,” said study author Agnes Melinda Kovacs, a research fellow at the International School for Advanced Studies, in Trieste, Italy. “As bilingual children presumably have to learn roughly twice as much as their monolingual peers [because they learn two languages instead of one], one would expect their language acquisition to be somewhat delayed. However, bilinguals pass the language development milestones at the same ages as their monolingual peers.”

The finding, which appears online July 9 in Science, came from a test of the responses to verbal and visual cues from 64 babies who were 12 months old. They came from monolingual and bilingual families, although the study did not specify which languages the families spoke.

The toddlers were exposed to two sets of words that had different structural characteristics. After each word, the children viewed a special toy on either the left or right side of a screen, depending on the word’s structure. They then were presented with words they had never heard before but that conformed to one of the two verbal structures. No toy followed.

Researchers determined whether the infants had learned the word structures by measuring the direction of their gaze after hearing each new word. Judging by their eye movements, the bilingual kids did better in recognizing words than their monolingual peers.

“We showed that pre-verbal, 12-month-old, bilingual infants have become more flexible at learning speech structures than monolinguals,” Kovacs said. “When given the opportunity to simultaneously learn two different regularities, bilingual infants learned both, while monolinguals learned only one of them.”

This means, she said, that “bilinguals may acquire two languages in the time in which monolinguals acquire one because they quickly become more flexible learners.”

According to the study, the cognitive pathways developed during the learning of two languages might make bilingual children more efficient in acquiring new information.

Earlier research has often confirmed the benefits of learning more than one language. In a 2004 Canadian study, for example, researchers found that bilingual speakers were more proficient at dealing with distractions than those who spoke only a single language. That ability was even more pronounced for older people, suggesting that multilingualism might help elderly speakers avoid age-related cognitive problems.

A significant percentage of humanity speaks more than one language. In the United States, more than 18 percent of the population aged 5 and older speaks a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 U.S. census.

One child psychologist who read the Italian study found the results intriguing and said she would like to see further research on how children learn different languages, especially ones with different tonal structures, such as Chinese and English.

“We now know, thanks to [functional MRI] studies that allow us to observe the working brain, that learning does result in discrete changes in ‘wiring,'” said Marta Flaum, whose practice in Chappaqua, N.Y. specializes in diagnosing and helping children with dyslexia and other language handicaps. “It would make sense that learning a second language affects brain changes as well.”

However, Flaum said, “we know that the young brain is more plastic than the older brain, making it easier to learn at an earlier age.”

More information

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics has more on the emerging field of psycholinguistics.