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.

Being a Fish in Foreign Waters

Author Laura Caputo-Wickham discusses her Children’s book, A Fish in Foreign Waters

I was born in the gorgeous city of Rome where I graduated from college in Languages and Foreign Cultures. In 2008, love brought me to the United Kingdom where I taught Italian for many years and loved every minute of it.
Three years later my first daughter came along and with her I developed a great interest in bilingualism.

I had always known that I would raise my children to be bilingual. I was raised bilingual myself as was my mother, whose parents migrated from Italy to South Africa in the Seventies.

A Fish in Foreign Waters by Laura Caputo-Wickham

A Fish in Foreign Waters by Laura Caputo-Wickham

When you have the privilege of being part of three generations of bilinguals you inevitably start noticing you have things in common.
Some of these are the fun aspects of being bilingual like the constant code switching used while telling a very important story. You cannot waste precious time looking for the right words, so you pick the first words that come to your head regardless of language.

Or the “secret language” that you share with your parent, often used to gossip about people standing next to you assuming they don’t understand (and sometimes your assumption is wrong!).

Other common aspects are less amusing, though – like the feeling of awkwardness for being different, especially as a child.

I realised this when my daughter was around three years old. I detected some hesitation in speaking the minority language and could see the same in the older bilingual children of friends.

I started doing a bit of research on the matter and I came across a quote by Professor Colin Baker, who writes in his book, A Parent’s and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism (Multilingual Matters, Third Edition): “Children often don’t want to appear different. They want to conform to the status-giving behavior of the peer group. This may entail a temporary non-use of one of their languages.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that children don’t want to be different. They want to wear the same clothes as their friends, they want to watch the same shows as their friends and, most of all, they want to speak the same language. In addition, I learned that very early on children develop awareness of what language they should invest energy in learning. In other words, they don’t see any reason why they should “waste” time learning a language that, as far as they are concerned, only the grandmother they see every so often on Skype speaks.

Suddenly I started seeing a pattern in my daughter’s reluctance with my own experience as a child and the stories that my mother used to tell me: I realised that we used to perceive bilingualism as a burden rather than a privilege.

Children are often unaware of the benefits speaking two languages can bring and by the time they realise they have probably wasted precious years when their brain would have been very receptive to the languages.
This thought made me feel quite sad. Something needed to be done! And this was the inspiration for my book.

A Fish in Foreign Waters is the story of Rosie Ray, a fish whose world gets thrown upside down when she has to move to a different bay. She will have to learn a new language, make new friends and face some of the challenges that bilingual children often face – like being embarrassed by their parent’s accent or the different food in their lunchboxes. But on the day of her birthday she will make an exciting discovery that will help her see how much she has actually gained from being able to speak two languages.

My hope is that this book can be a helpful tool in getting our children excited about being bilingual and help, in some way, to lighten the burden of all the parents out there who are doing so much to help them through this challenging yet beautiful journey.

To order copy of the book, please visit http://www.longbridgepublishing.com/Pages/AFishinForeignWaters.aspx

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...]

Mum, what is sweet in Chinese? 5 Steps to ease your child into a foreign language

Chinese writingWell, I don’t know, sweety, but we can find out… I never thought that it would really get to that point where they actually “think by themselves” and start showing interest in other languages. Of course, it was going to happen, but when you hold your little bundle of joy for the first time, be it in hospital or at home, you just think about protecting it and what you can give it, you don’t think about what they may ask in the future! I don’t really push other languages and I don’t really intend to send them to formal language lessons, unless they want to go, of course. At the moment, making sure we keep the balance with three languages is hard work enough. Also, personally, I don’t believe that acquiring two or three languages when you are a child gives you a wand that magically makes you learn another language effortlessly when you wave it around. [Read more...]

What if your child refuses to speak the minority language?

Bilingualism does not follow a straightforward path and it’s not an exact science. There are many different variables that can influence bilingual families and bilingual individuals. Many successful bilingual parents don’t really stop to consider ‘what ifs…?’

What if your kid suddenly turned around and said that he doesn’t want to speak your language? What would you do? Would you feel disappointed, shame, a feeling of failure? This is a very normal, a fresh challenge and a new side of bilingualism, which is totally normal, and quite common for many bilingual families.

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As we mature and gain experience our view of the world changes. Once you begin raising a bilingual child, you will change too. When I was a student I thought bilingual children always spoke perfectly in two languages, with spotless vocabulary and genuine accent. Nothing could be further from the truth. With time and experience, I have realised that individual children are different, their circumstances are different, and I have seen many children with good command of two languages but with “thick” foreign accents in their minority language. So don´t assume a bilingual child will necessarily speak with a flawless accent.

Likewise, I no longer assume that bilingual children will all switch on and off the minority language when you want… they’re not robots after all. I feel lucky that my 4 year old has taken to speaking Spanish like a duck to water, and although she’s not unique, she’s not representative of all bilingual kids either. I know a few bilingual kids who speak their minority language, albeit using a restrictive code, limited vocabulary, mixed grammar, and strong accents, All of these are normal. It really depends on the child and the circumstances.

When the terrible 2's arrive kids love to say 'no' to Mum and Dad...

When the terrible 2′s arrive kids love to say ‘no’ to Mum and Dad…

There are children who simply refuse to speak the minority language. The reasons may be very different. They are also on the normal spectrum, there is nothing strange or weird about it, there is not reason to feel guilty either, you just need to take it a step at a time.

If you’re reading this, I imagine you’re interested in raising your children bilingually and overcoming these challenges. So, let’s look at a few tips and ideas that may help your child.

1. First of all, don’t give up. I know quite a few frustrated adults who complained about their parents listening to them when they were young and asked them to stop talking to them in “that foreign language”. They now deeply regret not being able to communicate with their families in “that language”. However, I haven’t met yet any individual that complains about being able to speak two languages.

Think about what can be affecting your child:

2. Is the environment hostile to your language and the national identity you represent? Do you think your child may be picking up on that hostility and he just wants to fit in?

Be positive and think about the things that you could do to help him feel more at ease with the language. Don’t think about what you or he can’t do, but what is possible: find other families with the same language, celebrate fun festivals, read interesting story books with them, watch TV programmes he may like, use hobbies to channel the language, etc.

3. Is she finding school difficult? Does she have problems with Literacy in school? Sometimes well meaning but misinformed professionals think that the reason a child has problems with school subjects is because the influence the second language is having. In that case, you can address his problems in school, and help her with it. Developing Literacy and language in the home language can also help him with his first language.

4. Is he just going through a phase like the terrible 2s? It may be that he wants to assert his identity making his own decisions, and saying no to something that it´s obviously important to you may be one way of doing it… just keep using the language! Toddlers and young children love saying ‘no’ to everything.

5. Ultimately, the reasons why a child may not want to speak the minority language are as many as children there are in the world. So, just be patient and try to find out if there is a reason, so you can deal with it.

Remember, that it´s really never too late to learn a foreign language, but it´s also true that it´s easier when one is younger. So, keep at it!

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

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)

Reclaiming preloved games and resources

“There is no need to reinvent the wheel! ” I will never forget this comment as uttered by one SENCO (Special Needs Coordinator) in a school I used to work at. This was said in reference to the amount of time teachers in schools in Britain these days waste making up resources for lessons rather than using used-and-tried materials out there. [Read more...]

Top tips for happy bilingual kids

When I started on my bilingual family trip, I did some reading about bilingualism and bilingual family. One of the things that really surprised me at the time was how the many articles of information written by the “so called experts” and parents quoting those experts made free use of the term “bilingual”. Let’s be clear on something, a person like me who speaks only one native language and a second foreign language well is bilingual, a child who has being brought up with two mother tongues is bilingual, yes, of course, if we take the term “bilingual” as meaning “two languages”. However, it’s plainly obvious that their bilingualism is inherently different. I will use the term bilingual kids here to mean children who speak two mother tongues. [Read more...]

Learning a Language with Professor Toto

Children have a knack for learning languages. This comes mainly from their not questioning what bit of information you are giving them, not like adults. “Mary, open the door” – Mary then opens the door. That is it. You do not need to explain why you put the words in the order you do, or why you do not say “you open the door” instead of “open the door”. This is why with small children we do not teach them language, but expose them to it.
There are many ways and opportunities in our day to day life to do this. However sometimes, it is useful to have some materials or courses that are already prepared, giving you ideas and helping you to introduce language in a meaningful way.
In this post, I am going to review a series called Professor Toto. It has been developed in the US and it is sold directly through their website “www.professortoto.com”, from Amazon.com and it can also be found on Ebay.co.uk Professor Toto is a language series that offers French, German, Chinese, Spanish and Italian.
The idea behind Professor Toto is to expose the child to language as it is spoken but with topics that appeal to children and that are likely to interest them.

Professor Toto teaches you French, Spanish, Chinese, Italian and German


This is how the website describes Professor Toto “Throughout this interactive experience, your child gets to meet Professor Toto’s friends: Sophia, an adorable little girl and Professor Toto’s exemplary student and Eric; an amusing boy who introduces his entire family and chats about his day.”
I think Professor Toto is a good tool to help you introduce a language to your children. It will be very useful for home educators or parents in general who wish to start their children learning a new language early. The DVDs and materials are interactive, they encourage the child to use language in the right context and they will also hear native speakers’ pronunciation. If you are teaching your child a language that you are not fluent in, you can use Professor Toto to expose your child to the right pronunciation and you can use it as a revision for yourself. It also gives you the opportunity to spend some time with your child, doing an interesting activity together.

Although very useful for non fluent speaking parents, Professor Toto can be used for native parents as well. It may help you to reinforce concepts that may get lost in the culture of the country you child is growing in. Some native speaking parents find it difficult to use their language for certain aspect of their life, it can be because you are busy when going shopping and it is quicker to use the language from the country you are living in, maybe you share that activity with your partner who does not speak your language, etc. There are many situation where the language of the country you are living in tends to get the upper hand. Using DVDs and resources developed for foreign language learning and may also be a good way to increase the exposure of your children to your language.

All in all, this looks like a nice resource to try. The idea behind it is learning while enjoying yourself, and the company that sells Professor Toto asks parents not to turn Professor Toto into a chore. I totally agree with them. Learning a foreign language should not be one more activity to get through in the daily routine of an already overscheduled kid. It should be a moment for parent and child to enjoy something together and share a passion. The same way you may sit down and listen to your favorite songs in the hope that your child will develop a taste for music. If you have a passion for language, then turn that passion into a way of building a relationship with your child. You do not have to be a native speaker to have a passion for language, the same way that you do not have to be Beethoven to teach your child to play the guitar.