Becoming Bilingual Can Give Your Brain a Boost: What Recent Research Has to Say

From the time my daugh­ter was born, my wife and I took her out to restaurants—not to annoy the oth­er din­ers, mind you, she was usu­al­ly very well behaved—but to expose her palate to as much vari­ety as pos­si­ble and social­ize her ear­ly to new and unfa­mil­iar envi­ron­ments. At one estab­lish­ment, dur­ing her sec­ond year, anoth­er tod­dler her age approached us, her moth­er trail­ing behind. “Can we say hi?” the moth­er asked. We said, “of course.” “What lan­guages does your child speak?” the woman polite­ly inquired.

We looked at each oth­er, a lit­tle cha­grined. Par­ents of young chil­dren often play sub­tle games of one-ups­man­ship, whether they mean to or not, and most par­ents fret over whether they’re offer­ing their kids the rich­est learn­ing expe­ri­ences they can.

At that moment we felt slight­ly inad­e­quate. “She just knows the one lan­guage,” we mum­bled, turn­ing back to our menus after a few more pleas­antries. I may have stud­ied Latin for sev­er­al years, learned to read a lit­tle French and Ital­ian and speak enough Span­ish for some halt­ing small talk, but for all intents and pur­pos­es, we’re a mono­lin­gual house­hold.

And accord­ing to cur­rent research on infant brain devel­op­ment, this may put our poor preschool­er at a dis­ad­van­tage to chil­dren who can greet her in two or more tongues. That’s not only because those chil­dren will grow up able to eas­i­ly con­duct busi­ness across coun­tries and con­ti­nents, but also because, Big Think reports, “a new study shows that babies raised in bilin­gual envi­ron­ments devel­op more cog­ni­tive skills like deci­sion-mak­ing and problem-solving—before they can even speak.” The brains of bilin­gual (and trilin­gual, etc.) peo­ple “look and act dif­fer­ent­ly,” the TED-Ed video at the top of the post claims, than those of the mono­lin­gual. (The New York Times puts things more blunt­ly: “Being bilin­gual, it turns out, makes you smarter.”)

Is this real­ly so? Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty neu­ro­sci­en­tist Sam Wang explains why it may be in the short Big Think video fur­ther up. Wang and oth­er researchers have acquired their find­ings by con­duct­ing research on some of the most adorable sci­en­tif­ic sub­jects ever. One study, con­duct­ed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton, test­ed 16 babies—half from only Eng­lish-speak­ing fam­i­lies and half from Eng­lish- and Span­ish-speak­ing house­holds. As you can see in the video clip above, the tots were mon­i­tored via a mag­ne­toen­cephalo­graph­ic hel­met designed spe­cial­ly for babies, as they lis­tened to sounds spe­cif­ic to one or both lan­guages.

Lead author of the study Naja Fer­jan Ramirez writes, “results sug­gest that before they even start talk­ing, babies raised in bilin­gual house­holds are get­ting prac­tice at tasks relat­ed to exec­u­tive func­tion.” Her co-author Patri­cia Kuhl elab­o­rates:

Babies raised lis­ten­ing to two lan­guages seem to stay ‘open’ to the sounds of nov­el lan­guages longer than their mono­lin­gual peers, which is a good and high­ly adap­tive thing for their brains to do.

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton researchers are but one team among sev­er­al dozen who have drawn these kinds of con­clu­sions about the ben­e­fits of grow­ing up bilin­gual. Both The New York Times and The New York­er sur­vey and link to much of this research. The New York­er also pro­files a skep­ti­cal study by psy­chol­o­gist Angela de Bru­in that under­cuts some of the enthu­si­asm and pos­si­ble over­state­ment of the ben­e­fits of bilin­gual­ism; and yet her research doesn’t deny that they exist. What­ev­er their degree, the ques­tion might arise for anx­ious par­ents like myself: Is there any­thing we can do to help our mono­lin­gual chil­dren catch up?

Nev­er fear, they can still prof­it from expo­sure to oth­er lan­guages, though you may not speak them flu­ent­ly at home. Big Think offers a cou­ple point­ers for rais­ing a bilin­gual child, even if you’re not bilin­gual your­self.

Lots of for­eign words make their way into Eng­lish. You can point out for­eign foods every time you have them, or watch a bilin­gual show with your child. As long as you expose them to the for­eign words in a con­sis­tent way with the same con­text, they’ll reap the ben­e­fits.

Try using a Lan­guage Exchange com­mu­ni­ty, where you and your child can speak anoth­er lan­guage with native speak­ers togeth­er. You’ll both reap the ben­e­fits with con­stant prac­tice.

Every lit­tle bit of expo­sure helps, and no amount of lan­guage train­ing will ever do any harm. “Basi­cal­ly,” writes Big Think, “there is no down­side to being bilin­gual.” The ear­li­er we start, the bet­ter, but there’s no rea­son not to engage with oth­er lan­guages at any age. We can help you do that here with our expan­sive col­lec­tion of lessons in 48 lan­guages. And to learn even more about bilin­gual­ism and its preva­lence amidst rapid­ly chang­ing demo­graph­ics in the U.S. and around the world, see the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Span­ish lin­guis­tics pro­fes­sor Kim Potows­ki’s TEDx talk below, “No Child Left Mono­lin­gual.”

via Big Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More 

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

200 Free Kids Edu­ca­tion­al Resources: Video Lessons, Apps, Books, Web­sites & More 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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