Benefits of Bilingualism
My husband and I love to travel- we love to explore other cultures, get a different perspective, and most importantly, consume as much delicious food as possible. However, one thing I hate about traveling to foreign countries is not being able to understand and communicate with other people. It makes me feel vulnerable, in case something happens and I can't understand, and it really takes away from being able to interact with natives. It is when I am roaming the streets of Paris, or getting stranded in Monaco because we didn't understand that the train workers went on strike, that I really wish I had taken French or Italian in high school ( I chose to take Spanish, even though I was already fluent in Spanish... yeah, I was that student).
While being able to speak more than one language is beneficial when traveling, it also provides several advantages when it comes to cognitive development. For example, research shows that children who are bilingual have increased benefits in executive functioning. Executive function is what allows us to plan, solve problems, and regulate and inhibit our behavior. To put this into context, executive function aids in our ability to solve math problems, plan for retirement, focus at work, suppress road rage (if you live in Atlanta this is crucial), and helps us in our decision to exercise instead of binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy (though I admittedly often make the wrong choice- like 98% of the time).
Needless to say, executive function helps us in a variety of different ways! And according to scientists, being bilingual enhances our executive function. Why might this be?
Well, if you are constantly juggling two languages, your brain gets a lot of practice at inhibiting or suppressing the other language. This process trains your brain to ignore stuff that prevents you from being effective at what you are currently doing. Think back to when you were studying, reading, or doing anything, really- wouldn’t being able to suppress mental distractions allow you to perform better at whatever task you were doing? The answer is yes!
Given the discussed advantages of bilingualism, exposing your child to two languages early on can greatly contribute to their success. Now, for those parents who are planning to just play French music or put on Spanish telenovelas….not so fast! Research has shown that without human interaction (live or virtually), which is impossible when the child is passively listening to music or TV, children do not learn that language. Therefore, being intentional about exposing your child to a second language when planning your child’s education is a great way to start. Whether it is placing them in a bilingual daycare or preschool or incorporating foreign language classes, making it a priority will be helpful. Trade that third sport for a Spanish class, or maybe just try to learn the language together with your child.
If your child is a little older, an inexpensive way to introduce a second language is to download an interactive app that teaches children a second language. While a lot of screen time for young kids is not encouraged, this might be a great way for your child to have fun while learning. You can look at a list and description of kid-friendly apps here.
When should I start?
When it comes to child development, the rule of thumb is usually “the earlier the better,” especially when it comes to language learning. Various studies have shown that by the time children are 10 months old, their sensitivity to nuances in language phonemes dramatically decreases. In other words, prior to a child’s first birthday, they are “universal speakers,” because they are sensitive to every language subtlety. However, by 12 months of age, children begin to lose this acute sensitivity as their speech perception narrows to their native language; the brain begins to really focus on the child’s native language to enhance their language learning, and thus their ability to pick up other languages is reduced. This is why adults who learn languages at a later age are never able to completely get rid of an accent- they cannot discriminate between certain language subtleties.
Now, this does not mean that if your children are older than 12 months, than you should give up on them learning a second language. Children can easily pick up another language, it just becomes harder once they hit adolescence. I simply want to emphasize that children are always smarter than we think, and exposing them to things early on is the way to go!
So mommas, I encourage you to consider exposing your children to second language early on- though remember- it is never too late to start! If you are already doing this, high five! You are giving your children an advantage. If you want to get started and are not sure what to do, this article can help.
Summing things up…
1) Bilingual children are better able to focus and solve problems than their monolingual peers
2) Exposing children to a second language early on is beneficial for their academic success
3) The earlier you expose children to language, the better; as we grow, we lose the ability to pick up all of the language nuances.
4) Learning another language requires interaction with others.
Carlson, S. M., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2008). Bilingual experience and executive functioning in young children. Developmental science, 11(2), 282-298.
Macnamara, B. N., & Conway, A. R. (2014). Novel evidence in support of the bilingual advantage: Influences of task demands and experience on cognitive control and working memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21(2), 520-525.
Morales, J., Calvo, A., & Bialystok, E. (2013). Working memory development in monolingual and bilingual children. Journal of experimental child psychology, 114(2), 187-202.
Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2014). Skype me! Socially Contingent Interactions Help Toddlers Learn Language. Child Development, 85(3), 956–970. http://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12166
Werker, J. F., & Tees, R. C. (1984). Cross-language speech perception: Evidence for perceptual reorganization during the first year of life. Infant behavior and development, 7(1), 49-63.
Disclaimer: While we mostly report robust scientific findings that have been replicated, science is a constantly evolving field, meaning new findings might support or contradict previous findings. Scientists' interpretation of some findings may also differ. We thus encourage parents to be critical of all information before they choose to apply it or dismiss it.