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...]

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)

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.

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.

Baby on Skype

Yesterday we had our first session on Skype with granny’s new computer. It’s actually not HER computer, but her neighbour’s computer. You see, when there is a baby involved people are prepared to go the extra mile!

Anyway, our first session went well. Cameras worked, voice worked, internet worked. It was only about five minutes on Skype, but granny sure enjoyed seeing her little new grandchild life on a screen.

At the moment M doesn’t pay much attention to the screen. For her the keyboard is a new thing to play with, and from time to time she’s also amused by the sounds and the image coming from the screen. But I’m happy that I’m maximizing her exposure to her mother tongue through these sessions, and eventually she’ll grow to appreciate those moments spent talking online with granny from Spain.

Language Acquisition in Bilingual Countries

Much of Spain is bilingual with various regional languages spoken.

When faced with the decision of bringing up our children bilingual or giving up and just live with the main language of the country, we are influenced by many factors. One of the reasons for giving up for many people is social pressure. Despite the increasing research out there showing that learning two languages at the same time “won’t confuse” your children, many people still would throw this back at you.

However, we forget often that there are many countries and smaller areas out there where learning at least two languages is the norm. We have several examples in Spain, where there are four official languages cohabiting together with Castilian, and a couple of unofficial ones!

In this article, I’d like to introduce you to my cousing, Paula. She is a bilingual Spaniard. However she didn’t start her life as a bilingual. Her first mother tongue is Spanish and she became bilingual in her second language when she moved to Catalunya at the age of 7, and learnt to speak Catalan to a native standard.

This is what she says about her experience bringing up two bilingual children, in a one-parent-one-language household:

My experience as a bilingual mother is very good. I’ve never had any problem at all. My children got used to communicate in both languages equally. They chose the language they use depending on who they’re talking to.
It was a bit more difficult for me, because I started to hear spoken Catalan when I was about 7 years old. I was lucky because I had a teacher in school who always spoke in Catalan, so that meant that I had to pay more attention to be able to understand what she was saying.
Now, I do the same thing that my children do. I just choose my language depending on the person, and I just switch from one to the other without even noticing.

Mi experiencia como madre bilingüe es muy buena, no he tenido nunca el más mínimo problema.Los niños se acostumbran ha expresarse en los dos
idiomas por igual.
Según con quien hablen utilizan con idioma o bien otro.
A mi me costo un poco más, pues yo empecé a oír el catalán cuando tenía unos 7 años, lo bueno para mi fue que la profesora que tenía en el cole
se expresaba siempre en catalán, ello implicaba que yo prestaba más atención para poderla entender.
Actualmente me pasa como a mis hijos dependiendo de la persona que hablo inmediatamente uso catalán o bien castellano sin darme cuenta.

Hola
La meva experiència com a mare bilingüe és molt bona, no he tingut mai el més mínim problema.Los nens s’acostumen ha expressar-se en els dos
idiomes per igual.
Segons amb qui parlin utilitzen amb idioma o bé un altre.
A mi em va costa una mica més, ja que jo vaig començar a sentir el català quan tenia uns 7 anys, una cose bone per a mi va ser que la professora que tenia a l’escola
s’expressava sempre em català, això implicava que jo parava més atenció per poder entendre.
Actualment em passa com els meus fills depenent de la persona que parlo immediatament ´parlo castella o bé català sense donar-me compte.

Obviously the experience is going to be different for a child growing up in a bilingual country, where he is going to be exposed to both language quite a lot of the time. A bilingual child growing up in England for instance, will be exposed to English for most of the day in the outside. This is why it’s important to get as much input in the second language as you can.

It would be great to hear of people with experience in a bilingual country.

YouTube as a resource for language learning

As well as off-colour clips of puking pets and teenage narcissists and that ‘Leave Britney Alone’ clip, YouTube is a great hunting ground for foreign language videos in practically any language and there’s plenty to capture the imagination of the budding bilingual baby.

It’s easy to find modern cartoons and children’s programmes but also some seriously old school stuff. Lidia has found some interesting shows she hasn’t seen since childhood. I’ve recently learned that some of my favourite childhood cartoon shows – like Dogtanian and Willy Fogg - were actually created in Spain and only later dubbed into English.

Here’s Dogtanian – AKA Dartacan – in the original language!

Many new devices now allow you to view YouTube videos on your TV, from things like the Apple TV
to Windows Media PCs. Turning a computer into a home media centre is now a pretty popular thing to do, storing all your music and movies in one place and surfing the internet, including popular video sites, from the sofa.

Before to access loads of foreign language TV, you needed to be a bit of a satellite TV buff and have your dish pointing towards the right bit of the Sky. I can see a day when the traditional TV broadcast will be a thing of the past and you will be able to bring up pretty much any film or TV show on your internet-linked TV or PC from any country, in any language. The internet makes it trivial to access Spanish media.