Being bilingual boosts brain

Being bilingual helps keep you from losing your mental edge as you age, according to a York University researcher, reported CanWest News Service in a story printed in major newspapers across Canada and picked up by the Washington Post and Britain’s Daily Telegraph June 14. “Being bilingual is like going to a brain gym,” said psychologist Ellen Bialystok of York University’s Faculty of Arts. “Handling a language is a big task for the brain’s ‘executive function,’ the area that keeps you focused on navigating through your day, doing what matters and avoiding distractions. Handling two languages is even more work. “Every time you have to put together a sentence, you’ve got two possible ways of saying everything, two possible ways of responding. Every time you use language as a bilingual, you’re exercising these very important functions,” she said.

Speaking a second language even enhances physical changes in the brain, pumping up more blood to carry more oxygen. In a series of cognitive tests with middle-aged and elderly people in Toronto, Bialystok found those who have been bilingual since childhood are better able to manage their attention in a complex set of rapidly changing tasks designed to distract them. This is separate, however, from any problems of Alzheimer’s disease; her work deals with normal aging. “If I can get political for a minute, I think that governments in Canada should be paying a lot of attention to this,” she said.

Vaughan candidates support subway link

Proposals to expand Toronto’s subway line north, which took hold in 2000 when the committee to extend the Spadina subway line to York University and Hwy. 7 was formed, are truly the future of rapid transit in Vaughan. Now, several federal election candidates say they can help make it a reality, reported the Vaughan Citizen June 13.

  • Increased accessibility to public transit is important to the NDP, New Democrat candidate Octavia Beckles said. “If a subway is what the residents of Vaughan want, then that’s what I want for them,” she said. “I will support what the people want.” In fact, the NDP is prepared to share half the federal gas tax with municipalities to help them pay for transit projects, such as the subway line into Vaughan’s future downtown at Highways 400 and 7, said the Citizen.
  • Conservative candidate Joe Spina said his party is prepared to give almost 30 per cent of the 10-cent federal tax on gas back to municipalities and will guarantee part of that money goes into a subway line. “Expanding the subway system into the 905 region is a good idea,” he said, adding it will bring increased economic activity around the line and allow easier access to public transit for area residents.
  • Green Party candidate Russell Korus says his party supports the idea of a subway north of Steeles Avenue. “We need more accessibility to transit. The more people that use the subway, the fewer cars there will be on the road and the better it is for our environment,” he said.
  • Incumbent Liberal MP Maurizio Bevilacqua said a subway can be an expensive option and before making any judgment on the project, costs should be examined closely and a collaborative decision made between all three levels of government.
  • Libertarian Party candidate Paulo Fabrizio said one look at all the empty buses in Vaughan and he knows a subway isn’t the right idea. “Everybody wants public transit, but then nobody uses it,” he said. “That’s a lot of tax dollars going to something no one will ever use.”
  • Canadian Action Party candidate Walter Aolari disagreed, saying not only is a subway a good idea, but it can be paid for by turning the Bank of Canada into a lending institution and using loan profits on transit projects.

Vaughan council took the first major steps toward a subway in July 2000 by protecting a transit corridor from Steeles Avenue to Hwy. 7. The city endorsed a consultants’ report a year later highlighting benefits of extending the line. Now, Vaughan is waiting for the money, said the Citizen.

Buddhist temple sale to help York students

A spiritual connection between the Faculty of Environmental Studies and a local Buddhist temple has resulted in what York University officials are calling “a particularly gracious and meaningful gift,” reported the Toronto Star June 14. The Han Shan Sih Buddhist Society took the rather unusual step this spring of donating the proceeds from the sale of the house that had served as its temple for about 15 years. The North York home’s value of about $340,000 will be used to offer annual bursaries of about $2,000 each for 15 to 20 environmental studies students starting in 2005-2006. All but one of the awards will go to undergraduate students. With matching funds from the Ontario Student Opportunities Trust Fund, the gift will actually be worth about $615,000.

“Giving away one’s home is a sacred trust,” said Paul Marcus, president of the York University Foundation. University representatives, including Environmental Studies Dean David Morley and Professor Peter Timmerman, who is a Buddhist, met with temple master Rev. Chan Ting last September. Ting, who has left Canada for at least a year, wanted to re-gift the house – which was a donation from one of the temple’s supporters – to the community in which she had resided. “It was a marvellous meeting, actually,” said Morley in an interview. “The master herself is a serene and rather wonderful person who managed to communicate with us her feelings and a spirituality that drew us in. It was very much a coming together of people who realized quickly they shared things. From that point on they were interested in funding our students, particularly for students in need. For us, that’s marvellous because many students are underfunded in their university careers,” he said.

York University installs its 11th chancellor

York University’s 11th chancellor is a former Supreme Court of Canada justice, reported the Toronto Star and Broadcast News June 13. Peter deCarteret Cory accepted the position of University chancellor at a convocation ceremony on the Glendon campus June 12. Cory, a Companion to the Order of Canada, succeeds Avie Bennett, York’s chancellor since 1998. Cory was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1989. He retired from the court in 1999 and in 2002, he was asked to investigate six controversial murder cases in Ireland and the United Kingdom. The cases involved alleged collusion by security forces in Northern Ireland.

Web site tracks federal candidates on city issues, money

The Web site examines where Toronto candidates stand on key issues facing the city and, perhaps just as important, follows the money trail, reported the National Post June 12. It was set up during the 2003 municipal election, organizing data provided by Robert MacDermid, a political scientist with York University’s Faculty of Arts, that tracked donations to candidates. VoteToronto is not the first community-based organization to analyze public records of contributions. Popular sites in the United States include and “They do add a lot to what citizens know about how parties are funded,” MacDermid said. “Political parties are not private organizations and the citizens need to know who supports them monetarily. Money is a big factor in America, but at least citizens know about it. I think citizens in a democracy deserve to have that information.”

Temporary work not a permanent solution

Experts are cautious about the increased use of certain types of temporary workers, reported the Toronto Star June 12. “Precarious work is a negative phenomenon. It poses considerable threats to our social fabric,” said Leah Vosko, Canada Research Chair with York’s School of Social Sciences. “Precarious work encompasses forms of work involving limited social benefits and statutory entitlements, job insecurity, low wages and uncertainty over the continuation of the job.”

In a recent study, Precarious Jobs: a New Typology of Employment, Vosko found that women between the ages of 24 and 45, young people, and immigrant and visible minority men are most likely to hold precarious positions. From the employer’s perspective, the use of precarious workers has the obvious benefit of lower wages and less benefits. However, the employer might also suffer from lower employee loyalty. “There is a relationship between the amount of employer loyalty and how well the employer treats the worker,” said Vosko.

Callaghan publishes all his father’s stories

Barry Callaghan, a retired York University English professor and editor of the literary journal Exile, has just published the complete stories of his father, Morley Callaghan, reported the National Post June 12. It’s a collection of four volumes with almost a hundred stories and introductions of varying interest by Margaret Atwood, Andre Alexis, Anne Michaels and Alistair Macleod. Why publish these stories now? And why all of them? There must have been a few dogs in the batch, wrote David Gilmour. “Nope,” Callaghan said. “A few years ago, I taught some of my father’s stories at York University. Things like “All the Years of Her Life” and “The Snob,” and the kids, 19, 20 years old, loved them.”

Alumna heads engineering society

York business grad Annette Bergeron was elected president and chairwoman of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, reported the Kingston Whig-Standard June 12. Bergeron, 39, has an undergraduate degree in material and metallurgical engineering from Queen’s University and a master’s of business administration from the Schulich School of Business at York University.

Rule of thumb

“There is no evidence, that I can see, that it [the phrase “rule of thumb”] has anything to do with domestic violence,” Sheila Embleton, vice-president academic at York University, told James Russell for his June 12 Toronto Star column “A Passing Phrase.” Some say “rule of thumb” comes from the Old English Common Law that forbade husbands from beating their wives with sticks that were larger in diameter than the man’s thumb. Not so, wrote Russell. “As a writer and lifelong fan of the English language, I had called Embleton, who has a PhD in linguistics. The phrase, whose first recorded use was 1692 (Oxford English Dictionary), seems to have originated in a handy coincidence of nature – the average man’s thumb is one inch in breadth – so the thumb proved convenient as a quick measuring guide by carpenters and bartenders.”

On air

  • CBC science guy Bob McDonald discussed a recent discovery of a black hole or neutron star by York University astronomers Michael Bietenholz and Norbert Bartel, on CBC Newsworld’s “CBC News: Morning” June 11.
  • Patrick Monahan, dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, commented on newly retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour’s accomplishments at a ceremony at the Sheraton Centre honouring her as she leaves to take a post at the United Nations, on CP24-TV’s “Opening Bell” June 11. (Arbour taught at Osgoode from 1974 to 1987.) Monahan also discussed the federal election campaign, on “VR Land News” (CKVR-TV) in Barrie on June 11.