Tips For Parents Who Want To Improve Their Own Language Skills

By Charles Gregory, January 2015

I know there are lots of parents out there who would love to bring their children up bilingually but unfortunately are not themselves bilingual. If that describes you, this post is written for you.

It’s a tough spot to be in, bringing your children up to be bilingual is a wonderful gift, but to be able to really immerse your children in your target language you need to be able to speak it yourself.

The good news is that becoming fluent in a second language is actually not that hard, I know this because I have done it myself (and am well on the way to fluency in my third language).

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A Common Myth

It is often believed that adults are not as good at language learning as children. This is actually not true… While children are very good at picking up languages, adults have a huge advantage – they can already speak one language!

A dedicated adult can reach a pretty high level in a second language with a year of part-time study. Compare that to a child who will normally take 2 or 3 years before being able to form simple sentences.

So no excuses! If you really want to learn that language, here’s how:

The First Rule: You Need Words

Many language courses focus too much on grammar, but most people find grammar boring. Remember, the reason you want to learn is because you want to be able to speak. The single most important thing then is to learn lots of words.

When starting a new language I like to aim for around 2,000 words…

That may seem like a lot, but if you learn 10 new words per day you will get there in just over 6 months. That’s very doable, but even at 5 or 6 per day it will only take a year. When I started learning Spanish I aimed for 20 words per day on average.

Chinese writing

How To Do It

The first step is to come up with a list of words. Start with a spreadsheet, in one column you will have the English word and in the other the translation.

The list should be a mix of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs and should be based on which words you will use most often. If you Google “top 100 verbs in X language” that will be a good start.

I also recommend including a separate entry for different conjugations:

                  What is a conjugation?

                  In English we conjugate verbs like this:

                  Verb: to be (irregular)
Conjugations: I am, you are, he is…

                  Verb: to dance (regular)
Conjugations: I dance, you dance, he dances…

                  Here’s an example in Spanish:

                  To be (for traits): Ser
I am: Soy
You are: Eres
He is: Es
Etc…

Do this for all of the most common verbs and uses, and include past and future tenses too (eg, I danced, I was dancing, I have danced, I will dance etc…)

Some people try to just learn the patterns, but learning the actual conjugations will help you to be much more fluent when you start speaking, and you will learn the patterns intuitively, so that eventually you be able to conjugate new verbs based on what sounds right.

Memorising The Words

Ok, so you have a list of 2,000 words to memorise, what next? This may seem like a mammoth challenge, but you will be amazed by what you can achieve when you try.

I like to use a free computer program called Anki.

Anki is a “Spaced Repetition” program. In simple terms, it shows you new vocabulary over and over at timed intervals. So the first time you learn a new word it will show you that same word again a minute later, then 5 minutes later, then 10 minutes…

The more times you review a word the more ingrained it becomes in your memory and so the longer the interval becomes. Each time, you will see the English word and you try to remember the translation, if you remember correctly you mark it as correct and the interval gets a little bit longer. If you forgot it, the interval resets to one day so you can relearn it.

It should only take around 15-30 minutes per day if you do it every day. You will learn 10 new words each day and review any old ones that are due to ensure you don’t forget them.

IGCSEs_SPANISH

The Second Rule: You Need To Speak

Once again: don’t worry too much about grammar. As soon as you have a vocabulary of 500-800 words you have plenty with which to start talking. At first you will speak in a very broken way, but you will be able to make yourself understood.

The great thing is, because you already have the vocab in your brain, when you start using it it will move to your fast memory and things will slot into place incredibly quickly. It often only takes 5-10 hours of speaking practice to get to the point of being able to hold a simple conversation.

So what are the options?

Move Abroad:

If you can live in a country where they speak your target language then that’s ideal (you lucky thing) but if not, don’t worry…

Get A Language Tutor:

Face to face practice with a professional tutor is ideal, especially when starting because the tutor can answer any questions you have about why things are said a certain way and they will be able to plan lessons around your ability level.

You can find a UK based language tutor here, or of course on plenty of other sites online. I would suggest telling your tutor that you mainly want to practice conversation and avoid English as much as possible (even if doing so is tough at first).

Get An Online Tutor:

This is best in addition to a language tutor (and a good way to save money). There are plenty of sites online where you can find online language teachers for conversation practice. This site has plenty of native speakers all over the world.

An advantage to this is that you can select a teacher who doesn’t speak much English. This will force you to use your target language.

Language Exchanges:

If you want to save money, and don’t mind giving up some of your time, you could try a language exchange. The way it normally works is that you find a partner who speaks your target language and wants to practice their English. You then chat (via Skype) for 30 minutes in English and 30 minutes in your target language.

                  Bonus Tip:
                  During your conversations you will come across new words, ask your tutor to write them                down and after your session, add them to your Anki deck, this is an excellent way to      supplement your Vocabulary.

The Third Rule: Put In The Time

The reality is that when you are learning the right way, it doesn’t take that much time to improve. If you can put aside 20 minutes per day to review your vocab on Anki and then 3 hours per week for conversation (either with a tutor or online), you will soon be able to converse at a basic level.

If you can get your other half to do the same, then pretty soon you will find that you can chat to one another in the target language, and that is when the true immersion will start!

Other Tips

Finally, don’t be afraid to try other things to help round out your learning. Here are a few suggestions:

  • When learning vocab, use Forvo to check how to pronounce them correctly
  • Get a Kindle and get some children’s books in your target language
  • Find some music in your target language, learn the words and sing along to it

How Bilingualism can Benefit your Child’s Brain

 

By Santiago Montero, Spanish Tutor DC, January 2015

Many of us who raise bilingual children aren’t thinking of giving our children a cognitive advantage. If we are married to someone from another country, or living in a different country to our birthplace, we might see raising a bilingual child as maintaining an important part of our cultural heritage. Perhaps we (rightly) think that a bilingual child will have more opportunities in the future when it comes to choosing a place to study, work or live. For parents in these situations, there are already plenty of benefits to raising our children as bilinguals. But what if there are more?

The evidence keeps on stacking up to suggest that being bilingual is very good for us, and particularly very good for our brains. Whilst it’s too early to say for certain, it looks as if the scientific community is finally coming to a consensus on the idea that speaking two languages frequently acts as a kind of brain exercise that keeps us and our children mentally fit.

A recent study has found that bilingual children are better able to tune out noise interference and listen out to key information in a noisy classroom. In the experiment, children were asked to listen out for the correct answer whilst the researchers played distracting voice recordings. Though the young bilingual pupils spoke a multitude of different languages, including Bengali, Russian and Polish, they significantly outperformed their English-only peers. If you consider how noisy classrooms for young learners tend to be, then the ability to filter out bad information and process the good might well help to explain why bilinguals tend to do better in education than their monolingual classmates!

The results of the study show that it does not matter whether your child’s second language is a ‘useful’ one (in terms of being widely spoken) or not. As long as your child gets to speak both languages frequently, even if one language is spoken only in the home, then your child is benefiting from the mental gymnastics of processing two languages and therefore developing a cognitive advantage that might well prove to be useful later in life.

 

Critics have suggested that it is not bilingualism that is gives these children an advantage, but rather the extra hours of education that are an essential part of the language learning process. Yet the more we understand the brain, the more it seems to be the case that language learning has a special effect on the brain that cannot be explained by education alone.

A study conducted at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter’s Academy has found that the intensive study of language has been shown to increase the size of the brain. The academy in question is a highly specialised institution where young recruits with a flair for languages are taken from zero to fluent in complex languages such as Arabic and Russian. Researchers measured the size of the brain before and after the students underwent thirteen months of intense language learning and found that there was a measurable increase in the size of the hippocampus – the part of the brain related to language.

In the control group, a different set of students had their brains measured before and after an intensive period of study. However, these students demonstrated no measurable signs of brain growth. The difference was that these students were studying medicine and cognitive sciences, subjects that are equally challenging but not language focused. This suggests that language learning affects our brain in a way that is quite unlike other forms of education.

It’s also significant that it is the hippocampus in particular that exhibited signs of growth. Another memorable piece of research found that bilinguals develop Alzheimer’s 4.5 years later than their monolingual counterparts. In those people who suffer from Alzheimer’s, it is the hippocampus that is the part of the brain that first shows signs of damage. Is it possible that by practising their language skills bilinguals build up their hippocampus, which not only helps them to filter out noise interference but also protects them from diseases that target the brain such as Alzheimer’s? It certainly seems to be a reasonable hypothesis.

As parents and teachers who are aware of the cognitive benefits of multilingualism, we should do our best to raise our children with two (or more!) languages. Though the benefits of bilingualism are not only accessible to children, it’s also true to say that given the right environment, children tend to find picking up languages easier than adults. If, as the evidence would seem to suggest, the language learning part of our brain turns out to function like a muscle that can strengthen through practise, it is our responsibility as parents to keep our children mentally fit by giving them the gift of a second language.

 

1 Filippi, Roberto et al. “A bilingual advantage in controlling language interference during sentence comprehension.” Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 15.04 (2012): 858-872.

2 Mårtensson, Johan et al. “Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning.” Neuroimage 63.1 (2012): 240-244.

3  Alladi, Suvarna et al. “Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status.” Neurology 81.22 (2013): 1938-1944.

Celebrities speaking other languages

We’re used to US and British-based superstars speaking English. But here are some celebrities who are bilingual, or at least pretty fluent, in other languages.

Can you think of any other good ones to add?

Here’s Colin Firth being interviewed in italian

Mila Kunis’s Russian language interview in Moscow

The Fantastic Four’s Ioan Gruffudd speaking Welsh

Kim Cattrall speaking fluent German

Rhys Ifans talking about poet Dylan Thomas in Welsh

Natalie Portman speaks Hebrew

Here’s Charlize Theron speaking Afrikaans with a Dutch speaking Belgian reporter…

Jodie Foster’s French interview

Singer Shakira manages to speak five different languages:

Ex-Liverpool and Real Madrid footballer Steve McManaman speaking ‘scouse’ Spanish.

Cillian Murphy acting in Irish Gaelic

Sandra Bullock speaking in German

6 easy steps to start your bilingual playgroup

When we found ourselves faced with the decision of wether to bring up our children in 3 languages for us the decision was easy – of course, yes! Now one of the main obstacles we had to overcome was the fact that we had one Spanish native speaker and one English native speaker, so, what were we going to do with French!

I speak fluent French, although not natively, and I haven’t lived in a French-speaking country for any considerable length of time. So, besides my French-speaking input, we felt that the girls would benefit from social interaction in French. So, building a local social network became one of the main priorities.

It varies from country to country, depending on how much parents work and how much childcare time the kids have, but in England the ‘playgroup culture’ is very popular. Playgroups in the UK are generally run by volunteers in church halls or community settings. They are big rooms with toys, where parents can chat and meet other parents and have a cup of tea or coffee while the children play. There is usually a nursery rhyme and story time session at the end.

Foreigners and people with special interests have quickly caught up to the idea of running a playgroup and have seen the advantages of doing so to expose their children to more language. In most British cities and large towns you will find at least one foreign language playgroup. However, it’s relatively simple to start your own playgroup if there isn´t one already. Here you will find some pointers:

1. The first concern when starting a new playgroup is financing. Many playgroups are run by volunteers at churches and the church takes responsibility for the running costs like electricity, water, coffee, tea, snacks, Xmas parties, etc. However, if you want to run a private playgroup, you will have to rent a room or find a public space that is suitable and free to use, like a public library.

When I started our French playgroup, Les Petites Grenouilles, they let me use the space in the children’s area in the Bristol Central Library for an hour on Saturday mornings. The location was ideal as it was in the centre of town and I didn’t have to pay any money, which was good as the French group consisted of one person at that moment, me. Later on, when we had a few people, we moved to cafés and play-cafés where they would let us use the space for free, but parents had a drink at the café. At the moment we are at that stage and the group is thriving. An older group I also belong to, which was started back in the 1980s by a group of Spanish mums – La Casita – rents a hall on a regular basis. However, they have had time in 30 years to build a regular base so there is always enough money to cover the rent of the hall.

Renting your own hall with space to store toys and books is the ideal any playgroup should aspire to. However, let’s walk before running – just start small and take it from there. There is no point in stressing about not having enough money to cover the rent, which the organiser would have to cover.

So, look for a nice family friendly space in your area and ask them if it´s okay to do a session. Generally, parents who are really invested in their children’s bilingualism would prefer having a small playgroup/meetup in a café than nothing at all. You can’t always please everybody, and many of the parents who would complain about having a playgroup in a café would not come to a playgroup in a hall either, in any case.

Juguetes-en-la-Casita

La Casita is a playgroup for Spanish speaking people in Bristol, England. It started as a group of mums meeting in their sitting room and 30 years on the group is still alive and renting a hall every week, term-time.

2. Build your numbers little by little, and don’t expect a big turnout at the beginning. Although there are possibly many parents out there with your predicament, reaching them may be difficult initially. But don’t give up!

At the first meeting of Les Petites Grenouilles there was just me and another French lady. Now for each meeting we have at least five families and over 80 people on our mailing list. It has taken over three years to reach this point but if I had given up after the first few months when it was just me and maybe one or two other mums, then we would not have a thriving playgroup now with parents volunteering to write for our blog, our Twitter account, and organise events like the Easter Egg Hunt.

So, start small but keep to regular sessions. For instance, start with once a month, keep contact details of all attendees, especially email, and maintain a mailing list. Just print some black and white home-made flyers in your printer at home and leave them at other playgroups, libraries and areas where there may be people with your language. Use online ads (in the UK Gumtree is very popular and works well). Email local free magazines that cater for families, etc. But, do keep in touch through the mailing list, even if a family can’t come now, if you keep in touch they are likely to attend one of the sessions when they are free. Also, they will tell other parents about the sessions. Once you have a regular base you can increase your sessions to two a month, and so on. From one Saturday a month we increased to two a month, and just this month we have started weekly sessions on Friday mornings.

3. Don’t turn down help. Be open about accepting help and support from other parents. Quite often they will want to help and participate but they may be shy to ask – or they may think that as you are the “main organiser” and it was “your idea” and, so, you would´t want help. Of course, you want help, and you want other parents to participate, this is the only way for the group to become an organic entity that grows with its needs.

However don’t expect help to be forthcoming. You will probably find that it takes quite a few sessions to find those special people who really want to take part in the group and help. They will be the “regulars” who will come with rain, snow or thunder. Be patient, just build the playgroup and they will come!

4. Have at least one special event a year. Depending where you come from or what part of the world you’re living in, you will be celebrating different festivities. In our case, given our background and the country we are living in, England, our main event is the Xmas party. Even on the first year when you may not have many people on your mailing list, it is important to celebrate that special event. This will not only bring the regulars together and strengthen budding friendships, but you’re likely to attract interest from people who may not be able to come to regular meetings.

Our first Xmas party was quite big considering that our regulars weren’t that many. Lots of new parents attended and some of them have stayed and have turned into regulars.

Don’t go overboard with preparations, especially if the money is tight. Rent a special place, this time it is important that it is your space and not a café or a public space that you have to share. Shop around, find a nice church hall that can be rented out for events. Three hours should be enough, leaving half an hour for arrival and preparation, and half an hour at the end to pack up and clean.

5. Keep a structured but flexible approachAll people like structure to a certain extent, and especially this help in playgroups, where people will be able to remember the “activities” they have taken part in and if they enjoy them they will be happy to return and participate. However, the group is not there to teach children language – this is something parents should be doing at home. The group is to reinforce the language and the culture, as well as create bonds with other people who share the same language. This bond or relationship is not just for the children but also for the parents. So, make sure there is plenty of time for parents to socialise and chat, and that children are allowed enough time for child-led play.

A structure that is common for may playgroups and has worked for us is:

- Arrival, greetings, people get drink/coffee, settle down, chat.
- Introduction song (pick up a song that you repeat each session to help people remember names). We sing:

Screenshot 2014-04-13 21.55.49I have a surname, a name

I have a surname, a name,
Two eyes,
A nose,
A chin,
Quickly, tell me your name,
To continue the song!

Your name is…
Hello…

- We continue with some nursery rhymes.
- Followed by an easy craft. Here children are free to join or play. Parents will help their children or talk to other parents.
- We end the session with a couple of stories.

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This is from our last session.

6. Money matters. Money, as we all know, doesn’t bring happiness but certainly helps to buy stuff to organise a playgroup. If you start small, there is no need to start talking money at the beginning. Start in a café or a free meeting area, once you have enough people to start preparing more structured-organised activities, you can ask for a small fee that you can save to pay for rent and materials for your Xmas party. The aim is not to make money from the group, but to have some money saved so you don’t have to stress about covering costs for special events.

For the first couple of events I organised for Les Petites Grenouilles I had to cover the costs up front. This is not an ideal situation and a bit stressful. So, to avoid it, we set a fee per session, as they do in all playgroups. Now, we can cover the costs of hall rental and materials upfront and if there is any money left save it for the next event, or any materials we need to buy.

It would be great to hear from any of you who is thinking of setting up a playgroup, or who has done so already successfully. Please, share with us your success stories, comment on the post, or email as on:

bilingualparenting

Looking for a French childminder or a Polish teacher?

Looking for a French childminder or a Polish teacher, or any other language professional for that matter? As a freelance mum of two little trilingual people, I have been often faced with the need to book a babysitter for a few hours, or tempted to get them looked after one day when I had a lot of work. I’ve often wished that I could just find a proper childminder or babysitter who spoke French or Spanish. As any working mum will tell you, although we all love our independence and our work, we are still torn in between two worlds, the professional one and the children’s one. So, being the language freak that I am, I though that maybe getting them looked after by a French or Spanish speaker, and knowing that at least they would be getting that extra input would somehow make up for the fact that I was working rather than spending time with them. [Read more...]

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).

ellderly_bilingual_man

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.)

bilingual_young_woman

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?

bilingual_kids

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.

bilingual_confusion

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.

bilingual_dictionary
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.

Adult_Language_learners

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.

listening_skills_language_learning

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)

It’s the Season to be Jolly…

Merry XmasIt is indeed the Season to be Jolly for those who celebrate Christmas. But of course as every year, I feel that cultural differences are at their peak here. I still find it strange to talk about cultural differences between two European countries so close in space and with so much history in common, but Christmas is lived differently in England and Spain. [Read more...]

Lifelong bilingualism keeps you youthful say scientists

New research from the University of Kentucky suggests older people that have been bilingual throughout their life show greater cognitive ability in old age, using less energy when performing cognitive flexibility tasks.

Older people who have spoken two languages throughout life can switch from one task to another more quickly, according to the study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals show different patterns of brain activity when switching tasks.

bilingual brain

Lifelong bilingualism is good for your brain says new research.

It suggests a value in regular stimulating mental activity throughout life. As we get older, the ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected circumstances and related “executive” functions decline. Lifelong bilingualism may help to reduce the decline due to the mental excercise gained by regular language-switching. This new research highlights how brain activity differs between older bilinguals and monolinguals.

Brian T. Gold, PhD and team at the University of Kentucky, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of healthy older bilinguals (aged 60-68) with that of healthy monolingual older people as they completed tasks to text cognitive flexibility. The found both groups performed the task accurately but bilinguals were faster at completing the task, expending less energy in the frontal cortex – an area scientists know is involved in task-switching.

“This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively stimulating activity… and brain function,” said John L. Woodard, PhD, an expert in ageing from Wayne State University, who was not involved with the study. “The authors provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals.”

TResearchers also measured the brain activity of younger bilingual and monolingual adults while they performed the cognitive flexibility task. Overall, they were faster at performing the task. Being bilingual did not affect task performance or brain activity in young participants. By contrast, older bilinguals performed the task faster than their monolingual peers.

Previous science has shown younger people are faster at switching and require less brain power. Bilingual older adults displayed significantly faster reaction times than their peers, much closer to the young participants. The brain is known to shrink with age but there seemed to be no difference in mass between older bilinguals and monolingual so the effect is not structural but likely creative by regular mental exercise.

The researchers also measured the brain activity of younger bilingual and monolingual adults while they performed the cognitive flexibility task.Overall, the young adults were faster than the seniors at performing the task. Being bilingual did not affect task performance or brain activity in the young participants. In contrast, older bilinguals performed the task faster than their monolingual peers and expended less energy in the frontal parts of their brain.

“This suggests that bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors,” Gold said. “Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging.”

It is unclear if older adult language learners can also gain some of the benefits enjoyed by lifelong bilinguals but as the effect seems to be born out of mental exercise rather than structural changes it surely can help. Indeed, other form of research has suggested exercising your brain, by whatever method, keeps it healthy.

Bilingualism increases mental agility says new research

A large amount of scientific data points to the benefits of growing up bilingual and fresh research from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland reinforces this view.

The study, published in the Journal of Bilingualism, found that bilingual children outperform monolingual children in problem-solving skills and creative thinking. Researchers examined primary school pupils who spoke English or Italian, half of whom also spoke Gaelic or Sardinian, and found that bilingual children were significantly more successful in tasks set for them.

A total of 121 children around the age of 9 in Scotland and Sardinia, 62 of them bilingual, were given tasks where they need to reproduce patterns of coloured blocks, repeat a series of numbers, to give definitions of words and resolve mentally a set of arithmetic problems. Tasks were all set in English or Italian.

New research suggest bilingualism benefits mental agility.

New research suggest bilingualism benefits mental agility.

Differences in performance between the groups were linked to the mental alertness required to switch between languages, which could develop skills useful in other types of thinking. The Gaelic-speaking children were even more successful than their Sardinian counterparts, which may have been due to the formal teaching of the language and literature. Sardinian is not widely taught in schools.

Dr Fraser Lauchlan, of Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences & Health, led the research. He said: “Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them.

“Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem solving and enabling children to think creatively. We also assessed the children’s vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils.

“We also found they had an aptitude for selective attention- the ability to identify and focus on information which is important, while filtering out what is not- which could come from the ‘code-switching’ of thinking in two different languages.”

Is ‘one parent, one language’ the gold standard for bilingual families?

One most popular, if not the most popular, ‘method’ for rasing bilingual children is ‘one parent, one language’ (OPOL). Generally speaking it’s important to be consistent with the language in which one speaks to a child, especially when children are just beginning to talk – ie. Mum speaks Spanish, Dad English.

It means the child learns to distinguish between the languages spoken at home, and out in the real world. It’s a method that, broadly, we’ve followed with our daughter. Even at age two and a half we clearly notice that she uses much more Spanish in Spnish environments, much more English in English ones.

Don't negate vocabluary

Reinforcing the ‘correctness’ of vocabluary in the other language can be beneficial.

Consistency is important to know where they are with their language. However, there are times when deviating from the rule if the other parent is at least partially skilled in both languages. Say for example, the child is asking/telling you ‘es una fresa?’ (it’s a strawberry) it’s probably better to answer, ‘Si, es una fresa. In English it’s a strawberry. Fresa en espanol. Strawberry in English’.

Doing this does not negate the original utterance (simply saying it’s a strawberry might leave the child thinking they were mistaken). It reinforces it.

There are other situations were a modest deviation from the one parent, one language rule can be helpful and not a hinderance. In some families parents may communicate in just one language all the time. In others they may effectively mix and match between to languages. It generally isn’t important to the child which language or languages parents are speaking to one another. There is certainly no reason to standardise a language when speaking in front of the children. In fact, it’s probably helpful if ‘family discussions’ can and do take part in either language at different times as this means one language is not relegated to second-class status.

Tower of Babel

Children are naturally skilled at differentiating between different languages. Many societies are naturally multilingual. Childrens’ brains don’t explode.

Sometimes of course a child just simply understands a concept better in the other language and for the sake of getting them to get the message the other parent may switch languages. This is not going to do much harm. Probably less harm than the children sticking their fingers in an electrical socket or running into a busy road!

What’s more important for the child’s language development is plenty of quality interaction with parent that speaks language one and the parent that speaks language two. That’s where it really makes a difference and where consistency helps, especially when out and about. The parents should continue speaking their own language to the child, otherwise one language risks being relegated to the ‘wierd home language’.

While you will read a lot of information about the terrible dangers of ‘language’ mixing, don’t sweat it. In some multilingual societies languages are mixed and blended and contorted into a huge cacophony and children still manage to cope just fine. The one parent one language rule is a good rule of thumb, a good foundation or starting point, but you’ll soon learn works for you in your own unqiue family setting. Good luck!