Ten amazing facts about bilingualism

Wondering whether it’s worth raising a child bilingually? Here are some amazing facts about the benefits of speaking more than one language.

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1. Bilingualism actually grows grey matter!

In the recent past, parents and teachers assumed that teaching children to another language at an early an age would delay their language skills and somehow stunt their overall intellectual growth. It was quite common to find children with foreign mothers or fathers who had not made any particular effort to immediately pass on their language to their English-speaking children. Indeed, by own mother did not teach my Welsh, despite growing up bilingual herself, which, with hindsight is a bit of a shame. As scientific research progresses, however, it is increasingly clear than bilingual children reach major language milestones at broadly the same age as monolingual children. Moreover, science is discovering that learning that speaking more than one language may have cognitive benefits childhood through to old age, keeping the mind youthful and lessening senility. Even brain scans reveal a greater density of grey matter in areas of the brain associated with language processing in people who learned a second language under the age of five. (Mechelli A., et al. Nature. Oct. 14,(2004).

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2. Bilingualism can help to ward off the mental ageing process

It’s long been understand that actively exercising the brain can ward can help people to remain sharper in old age and lessen the effects of senility. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, bilinguals exercise their brains automatically as they switch from one language to another. According to one study, the onset of dementia was delayed by 4 years in bilinguals compared to monolinguals with dementia. (Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. (2011). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A handbook on bilingualism & second language learning.)

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3. Bilingualism is increasingly common in today’s world.

People are more likely than ever to live in a country other than where they were born and where another language is spoken. As you’d expect English is the most popular second language of all but did you know that now people who speak english fluently as a second language outnumber native speakers?

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4. Bilingual children do better in education
Being bilingual may give children an advantage at school. Bilingual children have been shown to be better than their monolingual peers at focusing on a task while tuning out distractions. This seemingly enhanced ability to concentrate has also been found in bilingual adults, especially those who became fluent in two languages at an early age. It is thought that being able to filter things out when switching language enhances the brain’s ability to focus and ignore irrelevant information.

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5. Bilingual children do NOT often struggle with ‘language confusion’

Ever met an adult who could barely talk because he or she was a ‘bilingual child’? Of course not! Some parents may choose to use the “one parent-one language” approach, where each parent speaks a different language to the child. However, even in culture that are naturally bilingual and children may hear family members frequently switching languages confusion does not occur. While children may ‘code mix’ to an extent they soon learn to separate out the languages.

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6. Bilinguals are not always equally proficient in both languages

Most bilinguals, whatever their sage, are not equally proficient in both languages, and will have a ‘dominant language’ The dominant language is usually influenced by the majority language of the society in which the individual lives and can change several times – for example if a person moves country where their second language is spoken, or changes to a job where they need to use it much more, they may after a while feel more proficient in the other language.

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7. You can still learn a language as an adult!

Many people feel they cannot learn a new language when they reach a certain age. Countless studies reveal that while our ability to hear and understand a second language becomes more difficult with age, the adult brain can be retrained to pick up foreign sounds more easily again. According to research by UCL, the difficulties that adults have in learning languages are not biological, but perceptual. Given the right stimuli, then, even adult brains can overcome the habits they have developed to effectively crowd out certain sounds and learn new ones. Moreover, while the effects are not as pronounced as with people that learned a second language from an early age, learning a language in adulthood can stimulate and protect the brain into old age.

8. Bilingual promotes all areas of cognitive functioning.

It’s not just in language processing that bilinguals have an advantage. Mastering two languages helps bilingual children them solve logic problems and multi-task more effectively. Dr. Kuhl, in research carried out at the University of Washington, says bilingual babies “more cognitively flexible” than monolingual infants. Her research group examines baby brains with an even newer imaging device, magnetoencephalography, or MEG, which combines an M.R.I. scan with a recording of magnetic field changes as the brain transmits information.

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9. Bilinguals are better listeners
Perhaps because they are used to differentiating between two or more languages, studies have shown that all foreign language learners develop on average better listening skills than monolingual peers.

glocal languages

10. Bilingualism encourages people to think globally

Speaking more than one language from an early age introduces the idea that the world is a diverse place with different languages and cultures to explore.

Image of The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents

Image of Raising a Bilingual Child (Living Language Series)

Comments

  1. Don’t forget that bilinguals are also more empathetic http://languagemagazine.com/?page_id=12274

  2. Ahmad Kamal Nassar says:

    What an interesting subject to raise. I grew up as a bilingual myself and I have become an EFL teacher or rather a “facilitator”, as I personally believe that this word describes what real teachers are trying to do around the world.
    What I really wish to discuss here is how training institutions and cooperations, especially in the Middle East treats and weighs bilingual educators and trainers. They despise them and undervalue their capabilities no matter how long and where they have been teaching and how they have earned their accumulated experience.
    They only believe that certificates like CELTA and DELTA guarantee a good quality educator. That could be partly true, but how could they neglect other important factors such as traditions, customs and last but not least we speak the same language.
    Once upon time, I had a discussion with an Australian teacher who used to teach business English in Thailand to university students and had an English teaching certificate. He told me that he used to have a Thai-English dictionary with him all the time to ease explaining business terms to his students.
    Most companies in the Middle East insist on NOT using students’ mother tongue language in class to force the students to speak in English. Some of my students like this method, but since I need to involve the whole class, I find myself every now and then using our mother tongue language to ease the tension, regain their attension and interest.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Ahmed. It is always interesting to hear from the people who are actually out there, on the frontline, teaching English.
      As a teacher I can see the point you are making. There is a lot of pressure on language teacher nowadays to use the “target language”, which in an ideal world it would be the best way to learn a foreign language, right? However, as you rightly say, there are many different variables to take into account; you mention culture and traditions, and of course, mother tongue. it is very important to make sure the students “get it”, and sometimes one has to use what they already know, their mother tongue.
      I mainly teach foreign languages through the medium of English, and especially with beginners and with people who don’t speak much of the language one has to be careful with the amount of target language spoken. It can be great for some classes, but for other classes you may just lose a few students who find that they are not able to cope because “they don’t understand” anything.

      So, basically, in language one size does not fit all!

      • Elizabeth Lake says:

        I totally agree with you on using the mother tongue in order to communicate comprehensively with a student. Each student comes to the classroom environment with their unique needs. Of course we stress the target language because we are teaching English as a Second or Foreign language to speakers of other languages. However knowing a particular language is a benefit for the ESL teacher in that he/she is able to explain a concept in the student’s home language or L1 for greater clarity. I personally feel this a sense of accomplishment when the student really gets it. Being able to speak ‘Spanish,’ with fluency is a real help. It enables the student to get the support he/she needs at the time of need. I am very careful when I switch to ‘Spanish,’ in class and try to help the student /s as quickly as I can. This is because students who speak other languages may get confused. So then I switch back and explain the same concept in English at length. I agree that one size do not fit all. We’ve got to be sensitive to the various needs of students. Using Cooperative learning groups can also help to ease the anxieties in students who don’t understand the target language. In this case a teacher can place the student in a group consisting of students at the intermediate or advanced levels of ELP who can also explain to the student their understanding of a difficult concept in the student’s L1. Learning cooperatively is beneficial to the’ newcome’r because it is a safe , nonthreatening and nonjudgemental environment.

    • This is an interesting post. I definitely agree that learning a second language benefits brain development. On the topic of using the “mother tongue” in the class room, I understand the necessity of sticking to the target language, but is there a purpose for using the student’s language, such as explaining abstract ideas like ‘honesty’ or ‘moral’, for instance? How are these concepts taught in the Middle East?

    • Debra Crary says:

      Ahmed, I agree with everything you say. I also work in the Middle East and very few of my fellow EFL teachers speak a second language. I find they have little empathy or patience. They also set their expectations too high.
      I feel all language teachers should be required to study a new language every 5 years or so. I have a masters en TESOL and years of experience, but what has helped me the most is that I speak 3 languages. I can put myself in my students shoes and stay real!

  3. Silvana Vargas says:

    My daughter have 6 years old, we decided me and my husband talk to her in our own language and the english she learn with the cartuns, toys and book. She, talk, read and write in Português (Brasil), Spanish and English, perfectly. With me always talk in Portuguese and with her dad in Spanish, at school or other peoples who talk with her in English she talk with no problem. So, now she´s learning france at school, and she like to watch cartuns in other language, like chinese and italian. She´s love to heard other languages diferents she´s know already.

  4. This is an interesting post. I definitely agree that learning a second language benefits brain development. On the topic of using the “mother tongue” in the class room, I understand the necessity of sticking to the target language, but is there a purpose for using the student’s language, such as explaining abstract ideas like ‘honesty’ or ‘moral’, for instance? How are these concepts taught in the Middle East?

  5. While I am not bilingual (yet) I had chosen to teach my daughter sign language starting at nine months. Now she is 4 1/2 and has been at a bilingual school for over a year now and is fluent in Spanish! I could not be happier! I had always believed that having her do this would stimulate her brain cells :). Thank you so much for this article!! It has validated my beliefs!!

  6. Edith Mardirossian says:

    I was raised with four languages. This made life a lot easier when due to political upheaval and other circumstances, I had to change countries/continents 3 times and continues pursuing my studies in three different languages. For the past 27 years, I have had the pleasure of working as a second language teacher. I have tremendous respect for people who make the effort to open up to other languages and by extension, to the cultures attached to them. I believe that during the process of learning a language one should take risks and not worry about “making mistakes”.

  7. Hello there! This article couldn’t bee writtsn any better!
    Going through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He always kept talking about this. I am going to send thhis information to
    him. Fairly certain he will have a great read. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I love to learn different languages from my childhood , my father and mother both familiar to 3 languages,
    my native mother tongue is malayalam , then I learned tamil and hindi My husband is from other end of my country so I learned more language. Now I know 5 languages fluently and feeling very happy and want to learn more sometimes spanish will be next

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