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.

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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)

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.

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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.

Myths of bilingualism

Bilingualism, like many of those ideas that inspires love and hate at the same time, has grown a few myths around it. We have all met that 60s or 70s child, product of a multilingual, multiracial, multicultural family, who is however monolingual and absorbed with the life of the country of his birth. When asked about his roots and linguistics ability, this 60s-70s child responds that his parents wanted him to fit in, didn’t want him to get confused, wanted him to learn to speak… and lots of different reasons that for most of us, parents of bilingual children, seem like lame excuses. [Read more...]

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.”

The active, communicative toddler: wa-was and doggies

Over the last few months our daughter has come along wonderfully, she is outgoing and communicative. I know that most of you, bilingual parents, will be fed up with hearing the same song “don’t worry, your child will be a late talker, because s/he is bilingual, but it’s normal.” Well, guess what, of all the bilingual families I’ve met in the last two years through my daughter’s playgroups and people I knew before, I’ve only really met two children who were “late talkers”. It is debatable if these children were late talkers because they were bilingual, or just because they would have been late talkers anyway. So far, it is difficult to know, as for a proper research you would need twins or maybe a time machine so you could analyse one kid as a monolingual speaker and then go back in time and make the same kid bilingual… It is such a complicated issue, because there are so many factors that would affect a child’s development, like development in pregnancy, diet, illnesses and environment among others. So, sometimes I am really surprised at the ability of people to affirm something so far fetched as “your kid will talk late because he´s bilingual” when they actually don’t really have a clue of what they’re talking about… it is like Chinese whispers, like those damned Chinese whispers apparently based on psychological research that caused that many kids born in the 70s and 80s lost out on their family heritage because well-meaning family and friends decided that learning two languages would be detrimental to their development. [Read more...]

Being a new Dad, six months on

Six months on the pace of baby M’s development is astonishing. She’s suprisingly agile and athletic – don’t know where she gets that from – and now just starting to ‘commando crawl’ a little. Arms are longer and able to grab at more objects. We need to be much more vigilant now but she’s now so much more interactive and aware.

She’s superfun and you can begin to teach her silly skills like how to shake a maraca or drum on the tabletop. A reading session with a simple book will hold her attention for quite some time and she’ll stroke the pages and point at the images.

Actually becoming a Dad, while giving a big sense of responsibility, is not quite as stressful as I thought it might be. There’s too much goofy nonsense to entertain us going on, too much outright fun. The only sad thing is having to go to work when M’s at her most energetic and delightful.


M’s just enjoyed her first experience of Spain and the searing summer heat of Madrid. I’m not sure whether her latin genes will make her a sun-seeker or her celtic genes a sun-avoider but she did suffer a little, poor mite.

Although Mama has been speaking to her in Spanish from day one, the rapid faster-and-faster conversations of people in Madrid clearly confused her – as people spoke there was a curious look on her face. She stopped her periodic babbling sessions as if unable to mimic her Spanish relatives like she could her British ones.

The famed latin love of children is no myth. Everyone we met wanted to have a hold of M and she was passed round half the barrio on numerous occasions. That she didn’t seem to mind – loads of extra attention and fun. It’s when everyone’s left the room that the grizzles start. He much older cousins took to a huge shine her and she repaid one by yanking a dangling earring as hard as she could – a hand she can yank with some force now.

Spain was an opportunity to pick up some Spanish children’s books, DVDs and music and she’s certainly enjoying a DVD of Spanish Children’s songs. I’m not sure the telly should be used to babysit a 5-6 month old, but, heck – it’s a way to add in more Spanish back in the UK.

Lidia has hooked up with various bilingual new mums back at home. M has little half-German, half-Russian, half-French chums to interact with. Lidia’s also met some parents who homeschool their children. Foreign people – whether Spanish, French, Polish – who have had any experience of UK state education at all seem quite stunned by the low standards, the lack of respect, the bullying. Poor education seems another ‘UK special’ along with excessive prices for key living costs and binge drinking. It seems foreign parents would have no problem sending their children to the nearest school back home, but here want to homeschool or, if funds allows, go private. It’s rather sad.

It’s a few years off, but the benefits of homeschooling seem to grow bigger in our minds the more we think about it. As there are many networks of homeschooling parents and kids, the detractor’s main argument against it – that children become isolated from their peers – is meaningless. In fact, homeschooled kids seem to interact regularly with a far wider cross section of the community, rather than be couped up in arbitrary age groups.

In terms of bilingual learning, we’ve largely used the ‘one parent, one language’ method with M so far, although I’ll quite often use my intermediate Spanish with her just for fun and because, living in England, M will get plenty of opportunity to hear English spoken. It’s also an opportunity and an incentive to improve my Spanish and take it to the next level. Surely all I need to is stay one grammatical conjugation ahead of the kid, right?

Television and Video for Bilingual Baby

One of the challenges that most parents face nowadays is the battle against TV and computers. The way the world is going it seems we will lose that one. Technology natives they call them. All these little darlings we are bringing up will breath technology. We will feel old and outdated in a few years!
Hold on! Do we have to? Well, of course not. In Spanish we say, “si no puedes con ellos, únete a ellos”, if you can’t win, then join them!

That’s it. Let’s not see computers and TV as our enemy, but our ally in our battle to protect bilingualism. I’m doing just that. Recently I asked my nephew to record from Spanish telly a handful of children’s shows, so I can play them to my daughter when she’s a bit older and so getting maximum exposure to the language. I thought DVD would be great. But I was wrong, there is even a better way, a hard disk! These days the thing to do is go smaller, instead of having hundreds of DVDs piled up and gathering dust in your shelves, have a hard disk with all your favourite shows plugged into your TV.

There's loads of great TV in other languages

It’s not a great idea if you are addicted to the X-Factor and the like, but used wisely it can be a great tool for keeping language alive. Also recording from the TV and keeping the programme for your personal use isn’t breaking any copyright rule. My nephew gave me this idea, he’s bought a hard drive for me and is recording all the appropriate children’s shows from TV.

If the shows are chosen wisely it can be a great thing even for later years when they go to school. Get your family in your home country to record good programmes about history, culture, documentaries, etc even if you are not going to watch them just now. They may come in handy when the topic comes up in school a couple of years down the line.

Some of the programmes I can recommend for Spanish kids are:
Los Lunnis, las Tres Mellizas from TVE also available on their play on demand system http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/

If you have any other suggestions, please post them below. They can be for any other languages.

Computers, the new era for bilingualism

Communications have advanced a lot. In the past emigration meant long spells away from home without being able to receive any news from the family for weeks or even months. Nowadays we can travel long distances in less than a day, where in the past it would have taken a few weeks. This means children of immigrant families can go back to their home country often and so keep in touch with their roots.

However, travelling is going to become more difficult, due to rising costs, not just for tickets but for everything else in life. This will mean we won´t have as much money to spend in holidays and plane tickets.

This brings me to computers. More people use computers everywhere, there are lots of companies creating language learning software that promises you “effortless” or almost “effortless” and fun learning. I have worked for a company developing one of these courses. It´s fun and it is great for people who want to learn languages at their own pace. But for me computers mean a new dimension of communication and instant travel, not physically of course.

A couple of weeks ago I visited my mother in Spain. She is almost eighty and not computer literate at all. But she is so eager to see as much of her little English granddaughter as she can. So when I suggested that she asked her neighbour if she could use Skype from her computer, to my great surprise, she didn´t hesitate. It was even more surprising when her neighbour agreed to a weekly Skype session! I put it down to “Cute Power”. It’s the power that babies have over people. Especially Latin people… they can´t get enough of the little ones…

My next little project is getting my family to use Skype for regular communication. I hope this will help my baby to accept her mother’s language as something natural that people use, not just her mum and a few children from Spanish playgroup. Although we talk on the telephone quite often, for me being able to see somebody speaking while hearing them means a great advantage over just hearing the voice. Especially for babies, it makes it easier to establish the relationship between voice and person.

I have a friend who lives in America and uses Skype with her parents regularly. It’s free so she doesn´t have to worry about costs, and they can indulge in granddaughter watching as much as they want, even though they are an ocean apart!

One of the main concerns of bilingual parents is how to break away from the “passive” language, children being able to understand everything but would answer only in the main language of the country where they´re living, and turning it into an active language. Having regular meetings with family and friends using Skype will encourage children to use the second language actively. If grannies, aunties and uncles only speak the second language, children will have to use this language in order to get their message across, even if it’s just to tell them what they want for their birthday.

So, computers can be an amazing thing!

Why I wanted to bring up my child bilingual

I moved to England a few years ago, I am originally from Spain. I never planned to marry here, and have children. But you can’t plan love and life sometimes happens to you.

As I am a bilingual parent myself, or almost bilingual, it makes sense to pass on this skill on to my children. Spanish is my native tongue, and I speak English to a high standard. I always liked learning languages, I started studying English in school when I was eleven years old, and then I continued at university.

After years of grammar drills, conversation exchanges and sitting down to learn long lists of vocabulary, it is quite disheartening to find out that it is actually quite difficult to understand anything at all when you actually talk to a native speaker. In my first long stay abroad, I spent a year in Ireland, I improved my conversation skills a lot. I still remember the first day I landed in Dublin, the father of my host family came to pick me up from the airport, and it was a shock to find out I could not understand a single word he was saying, after 10 years of English lessons.

This is not uncommon, it is quite easy to learn to read and write a language, but the hard bit are the sounds!

Living abroad in a bilingual household, it does make sense to help my child to become conversant with two languages. English she is going to learn anyway, as she will live in England, immersed in the language. Spanish she will learn from me, and she will need it to communicate with her Spanish family. It will be more difficult as she will not have a “Spanish” society around her, but that’s where my input and effort will have to take on their role.

I also speak French fluently, although it’s not my native language, and I don’t speak it as well as English. But it was also very hard for me learning it, it took me years of effort, trips abroad and hard-core grammar drills. I wanted to save my child from going through the same struggle, so I decided to pass this language on to my daughter as she grows up.

Now, lots of people have said to me that it may be a good idea to teach her (teach is not the right word here, but I will get to that later) Spanish as it’s my native tongue and the language of my family. They said something about it close to your heart… but most people have tried to discourage me from also “teaching” her French. Apparently, as it’s not my native tongue, I will not feel it close to my “heart”, whatever that means. What are the advantages and disadvantages of teaching my daughter a language which is not my native language:

Disadvantages.

She will pick up a foreign accent, she may well pick up wrong grammar as I’m not a native speaker, she will not have family to speak it with, apparently (so I’m told) there is no “feeling” for the language…

Advantages

Better to speak French with a foreign accent than no French at all, you also pick up wrong grammar from teachers at school but it’s easier to polish it if you have a good grounding and you can then communicate with native speakers, read and watch telly/listen to radio, teachers in school are not necessarily native speakers so if she learns from a tender age at home she will not have to learn grammar/vocabulary at school,

So, basically if I “teach” or rather talk to my daughter in French from a very tender age (read from birth), I will end up with a child who speaks French with a strong Spanish/English accent, who can understand TV/radio and generally native speakers, who will be able to read French books independently and therefore improve her vocabulary/grammar. It’s terrible I know, speaking French with a foreign accent and making mistakes… of course in England there aren’t any people working in all types of jobs, from business to education who after twenty odd years in the country still have a strong accent… it’s a crime having a foreign accent, isn’t it? To be fair, I know quite a few bilingual kids in England, offspring of bilingual parents who speak fluently their parents’ language but with a strong foreign accent! So, what’s the problem?

In my next posts, I will be writing about what methods and strategies I want to use, and also why I think that the term “teach” a language shouldn’t be used when bringing up bilingual children.