Bilingualism boosts Cognitive Function says TED-ed lesson

In newly-uploaded TED-Ed lesson titled, The benefits of a bilingual brain, educator Mia Nacamulli teaches how language learning can boost brain health.

The video lesson highlight the the three types of bilingual brains that exist and how attitudes to bilingualism have devloped over time. In the 1960s, the lesson states, bilingualism was seen as a ‘handicap’ that could hamper a child’s development but now we know the exact opposite is true. Even where budding bilinguals could sometimes show a delay in response times in language tests the extra mental effort stimulation the ‘dorsolateral prefrontal cortex’, the part of the brain that plays a large role in executive function, problem solving, task switching and focussing while filtering out irrelevant information.

There are differences bilingual brain that can be analysed using brain imaging technology. Language processing involves functions of both the brain’s left hemisphere (dominant and analytical in logical processes) and right hemisphere (active in emotional and social processes). The ‘critical period hypothesis’ suggests people who learned a second language early in life have a holistic grasp of its social and emotional contexts and those who learn another language in adulthood show less of an emotional bias and a more rational approach.

Bilingualism can maintain the health of people of all ages.

Bilingualism can maintain the health of people of all ages.

‘While a balanced bilingual has near equal abilities across the board in two languages, most bilinguals around the world know and use their languages in varying proportions,’ says Nacamulli.

Bilingualism therefore is much more than something that makes traveling of business easier, or something that enables access to a wider range of culture bit plays a big role in brain health.

Bilingual people can be classified into three general types of brains:

  • compound bilingual
  • coordinate bilingual
  • subordinate bilingual

Compound bilinguals developed two linguistic codes simultaneously. For instances, learning English and Spanish has you begin to process the world in a bilingual environment.

Coordinate bilinguals juggle two sets of concepts. For example, learning English at school while speaking their native tongue at home or with family.

Subordinate bilinguals learn a secondary language by filtering it through their primary language.

Whichever category someone falls into, a bilingual brain contains a higher density of gray matter, which contains most of the brain’s neurons and synapses. Using a second language also leads to more activity in certain brain regions, giving it ‘excercise’. The TED-Ed video suggests this can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia.

A 2014 study published in the journal Brain and Language found people who speak more than one language are better at filtering out unnecessary words than monolinguals. The brains of those who only knew one language had to work harder to complete the same mental tasks. The researchers believe this is because being bilingual is a constant brain exercise.

‘Bilingualism may not necessarily make you smarter,’ states the lesson, ‘but it can keep your brain healthy and active.’

So whether you are a lifelong bilingual or an adult language learner, there are plenty of health benefits.

Challenges in bilingual families no one tells you about

By Nicole Brown

I am a mother to a ten-year-old bilingual and a university lecturer and therefore interested in bilingualism professionally and privately. When my husband and I decided to bring up our child bilingually we delved into a range of guidebooks to make sure we were not going to make mistakes. But when I investigated language learning in bilingual families in greater detail I came across issues and challenges that bilingual families encounter that are not mentioned in any of those handbooks or parent guides. [Read more...]

Foreign or second language learning through craft

Craft with bilingual childrenThe secret of learning a language is that there is no “secret”, basically a language is a tool for communication, and the best way to learn it and practice it is communicating. However, this can be difficult on a day to day basis, especially if both parents and children are busy with work, school, after school clubs and their social lives. So, this is when we really need our imagination and crafty hands to come up with interesting and fun activities that don’t look too much like “school” work. [Read more...]

Discoveries after 4 years of raising bilingual children

My eldest daughter, Martha, as just turned four and her sister, Malena, has just turned two. Both children have existed in a multilingual environment from day one. Martha speaks English and Spanish to more of less equal fluency and fully understands French, with a much lesser propensity to use it.

Looking back over the last four years, these are the discoveries I’ve found most interesting.

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain...

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain…

1. Being bilingual or multilingual did not significantly ‘stunt’ the age at which language was acquired. Some friends of Martha’s monolingual friends were very quick talkers so for a brief period I wondered but, looking at a wider selection of children, I realised she was just more average rather than precocious. And, of course, she was learning two languages. Malena, by contrast, is very much a ‘quick talker’ and frequently shocks us with the surprisingly elaborate utterances she sometimes produces in English, Spanish and even French. The important thing to note is that children develop at their own pace.

2. Bilingualism makes kids happy! It’s important to note that our approach to raising bilingual children has been about ‘exposing not imposing’. Through a mix of conscious language use in the home, attending play groups and social gatherings conducted in other languages, use of books, media and technology we have attempted to create a lively multilingual environment with no ‘drilling’ of language into the kids. Martha now wants to learn to and write, and is seeking support from us. Children are natural, avid learners and I feel that trying to force learning onto them merely interferes with their natural curiosity. She’s also asking a lot of ‘scientific’ questions so by using our small garden and books about the planets as illustrations I am trying to answer them.

3. Learning a THIRD language has worked. Lidia’s native tongue is Spanish but she also speaks English and French to a near-native level of fluency. She introduced French too from day one and Martha attends a French-speaking nursery school. I have to admit this was something I watched carefully. Would a third language be just too much? Would she be ‘lost’ or stressed by the French school? As it turned out it merely means that she fully understands French language – we believe as well as English and Spanish. Until recently she hadn’t uttered much French with us but is increasingly communicating in French with people she identifies as French speakers. In other words, she can identify the language of and English, Spanish or French speaker and speak the appropriate language, albeit with less ability in the third language. This is remarkable to me.

4. The children have a full and proper relationship with their Spanish extended family. Both girls talk more than once a week with their Aunt and Grandmother on Skype and when Martha visits Madrid she can talk to children she meets like a Spanish native speaker. It would have been terrible to have cut her off linguistically from all this by delaying language learning until later when it then has to be taught rather than acquired naturally.

5. My Spanish has improved and I’ve even picked up a fair amount of French. It was an eye opener one day when Martha asked me for something in Spanish and I had to quickly Google the word for a translation! She’s quickly outpaced my rather intermediate semi-fluent Spanish and I feel the need to keep up.

6. The kids already have a very global outlook. From birth the girls have existed in a multilingual and multicultural environment and know about other countries, different languages. It’s a world away from when I was a kid (I was probably 18 before I had a conversation with someone from the North of England) and I think the girls will definitely be much richer for it.

What are iGCSEs and why can they help bilingual families?

iGCSEs are becoming increasingly popular in UK-based bilingual families as a way to gain a language qualification earlier than 16 or as an additional subject outside the school system.

Typically bilingual children are more than capable of passing a GCSE examination earlier or in a language not typically offered by schools. iGSCEs (‘International’ GCSEs) can help by allowing subjects to be studied at home instead.

Books tailored to iGCSE language exams are increasingly common.

Books tailored to iGCSE language exams are increasingly common.

The iGCSE is the world’s most popular international qualification for 14 to 16 year olds and is frequently used in schools overseas with education systems derived from the UK’s or in private international schools used by ex-pats. Like any other GCSE, it is recognised by universities and employers worldwide. The iGSCE is also popular with children that are homeschooled or privately tutored.

Cambridge International Examinations is a major provider of iGCSEs. They offer qualifications in over 70 subjects available at Cambridge IGCSE and 30 of these are languages.

For many of these languages it is possible to either complete the course as a native speaker or as a foreign language learner, so useful for bilingual children who either fancy a challenge or who simply want to convert their second language into an ‘extra GCSE’ easily by choosing the foreign language option.

Although designed for schools, as they are exam-based and do not include coursework, iGCSEs are ideal for home schooling and distance learning. They are ideal for anyone seeking a qualification without having to attend full or part-time classes.

As the iGCSE is assessed by examinations it is often considered to be similar in style to the older O-Levels qualification than to the current GCSE in England, and current government Education Minister, Michael Gove has encouraged more mainstream UK schools to offer them on the basis that examinations are more ‘rigourous’ than courses with a large coursework component.

Remember, the iGCSE itself is merely an examination and qualification. The student will need to follow the syllabus by themselves, perhaps with the aid of their parents, or work with a tutor. If this is a problem there are an increasing number of online distance learning courses from a variety of providers that use the iGCSE and books to guide you through the topics needed to pass.

Are you currently working towards a iGCSE language qualification with your children? Let us know how you’re getting on in the comments.

Bendigedig! Bilingual Welsh eBooks hit the iPad

The big-selling Apple iPad is becoming an increasingly popular way of delivering fun language learning and now Savvy Books and Parthian Books have teamed up to create a new series of bilingual Welsh-English children’s eBooks.

The series helps young readers and their parents share in the joy of learning the Welsh language together. The first eBook, Wedi Dy Weld Di! – Found You Rabbit!, is currently available for download from Apple’s iBookstore. The book is specifically designed for the iPad but will also work on an iPhone or iPod Touch, with a free sample of a few pages available to try before you buy.

Savvy Books’ founder David Clarke said: “Matching the sight of the written word to the sound of the spoken word is fundamental to learning any language. What is so exciting about interactive eBooks is they let family members gain confidence by learning at their own pace, repeating words and sentences as often as needed.”

This book is a fun way for children and parents to learn Welsh together.

This book is a fun way for children and parents to learn Welsh together.

The book was written and illustrated by Hayley Acreman and translated by Welsh author and broadcaster Elinor Wyn Reynolds. It presents an engaging story about two best-friends, Rabbit and Duck, and their adventures in the countryside.

David Clarke from Savvy explains: “All eBooks in the Welsh Alive series highlight each individual word on the screen in perfect synchronization with the audio narration. Any word can be repeated just by tapping on it, and readers can switch back-and-forth between Welsh and English at any time. These are powerful language-learning features for both children and adults.”

The iBook can be downloaded here:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/wedi-dy-weld-di!-found-you/id670891399?mt=11

Follow Bilingual Parenting online

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As well as posting links to new content from bilingual parenting.com, we will be posting links to interesting articles on multilingualism from around the globe.

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Four years on… how are we doing?

I am sure that some of you who read our blog come back time and time again to see how we are doing, how are the children coping with the multilingual environment. It could be that you are planning the same, you are unsure of what to expect, you want reassurance there are other people out there doing the same, or you are just curious and want to follow our adventure through time. [Read more...]

International Map of Languages

Screenshot 2014-04-03 22.47.42Sandy Ritchie from SOAS, University of London, is collaborating in a project to create a new online world to celebrate languages and help protect rare and endangered languages. They are creating a world map online that will show the spread of languages through the recordings uploaded by individual speakers from all over the world.  A great idea! [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.

aminated_brain

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)