Benefits of a Bilingual Education

Posted by Merle Huerta in Infants, School Age, Speech and Language, Teens, Toddlers

brain language1


Our brains are designed to handle acquisition of multiple languages. So it’s no surprise that young children, immersed in a bilingual experience, seem to absorb language more readily than adults. The reason why is partly structural, partly environmental. According to Laura-Ann Pettito, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychology who studies the effects of language, specially bilingualism on the brain of children, brain tissue in young brains is specialized for language acquisition. When a child is immersed in a high-quality bilingual education or surrounded by a foreign language, the acquisition becomes a whole-brain engagement. Young children are encouraged to learn language. Adults speak to children at a level and about subjects that naturally engage and intrigue them and children reciprocate. Communicating with others is an activity children want to engage in.

But there are other proficiencies children exposed to a bilingual education develop too.

A bilingual education can strengthen the executive function of the brain.

For budding bilingual children, sounds, syntax, and words from both languages are being acquired at the same time. Whenever a child hears a word in either language, the brain is retrieving and attempting to match a sound with what they know. Bilingual children learn that an object might have two or three different names based on the language being spoken and depending upon the environment they have to retrieve the correct identifying label in the correct language. This juggling act requires attention and inhibition processes that minimize confusion. As a child becomes more proficient in two or even three languages, the ability to tune in and inhibit unrelated words becomes stronger.

To switch back and forth requires executive functions in the brain. The executive function is like a control tower that guides traffic and activities in and out of the brain. Children immersed in a bilingual education developed stronger  executive functions, especially the attention and inhibition processes. As a result, these children tend to be more adept at switching between two tasks, multi-tasking, and making decisions in the face of conflicting information.

A bilingual education changes the shape and function of certain regions of the brain.

Language acquisition alters the shape of the brain and affects what regions handle what functions. There are two key regions responsible for speech–Broca’s area, in the left frontal part, thought to be responsible for speech production; and Wernicke’s area, in the rear of the brain, thought to be responsible for the processing of meaning. Researchers found that two groups–monolingual and bilingual subjects–used Wernicke’s area no matter what language they were speaking. But their use of Broca’s area differed in bilingual speakers, especially in young speakers.

“People who learned a second language as children used the same region in Broca’s area for both languages. But those who learned a second language later in life made use of a distinct region in Broca’s area for their second language–near the one activated for their native tongue.” (Discovery, 10/97)

Why does this happen? According to the article, when language skills are developing, the brain may intertwine sounds and syntax of both languages in the same region of the brain (in this case Broca’s Area). Once the brain’s language acquisition region is hard-wired, any new language acquisition takes place in a separate area of the brain such as Wernicke’s Area.

Bilingual children are better at dealing with conflict management.

No. Not conflict resolution with people. Rather completing information or information that contradicts other information. A perfect example of this is in the classic Stroop task. In this task,  people see a word and are asked to name the color of the word’s font. When the color and the word match (i.e., the word “red” printed in red), people correctly name the color more quickly than when the color and the word don’t match (i.e., the word “red” printed in blue). This occurs because the word itself (“red”) and its font color (blue) conflict. The cognitive system must employ additional resources to ignore the irrelevant word and focus on the relevant color. The ability to ignore competing perceptual information and focus on the relevant aspects of the input is called inhibitory control. Bilingual people often perform better than monolingual people at tasks that tap into inhibitory control ability. Bilingual people are also better than monolingual people at switching between two tasks; for example, when bilinguals have to switch from categorizing objects by color (red or green) to categorizing them by shape (circle or triangle), they do so more rapidly than monolingual people. And this ability is good for the brain. New studies are showing that a multilingual brain is nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer.

Bilingual education makes kids more adaptable and flexible in a changing environment.

Being bilingual can have adaptive benefits. The improvements in cognitive and sensory processing driven by bilingual experience may help a bilingual person to better process information in the environment, leading to a clearer signal for learning. It may also help kids to adapt rules to accommodate new information. That’s because the process of tuning in and inhibiting language in environmental situations trains the brain. It’s a skill that allows bilingual people to access newly learned vocabulary while inhibiting other words from a competing vocabulary.

This flexibility to change rules can be seen in a study with bilingual babies as young as seven months of age. “In one study, researchers taught babies growing up in monolingual or bilingual homes that when they heard a tinkling sound, a puppet appeared on one side of a screen. Halfway through the study, the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of the screen. In order to get a reward, the infants had to adjust the rule they’d learned; only the bilingual babies were able to successfully learn the new rule. (Kovacs, 2009, #5)

Children who learn a second and third language have better memories and are more cognitively creative than single language speaking counterparts.

In other words, the areas of the brain that grew were linked to how easy the learners found languages, and brain development varied according to performance. As the researchers noted, while it is not completely clear what changes after three months of intensive language study mean for the long term, brain growth sounds promising.

Speaking a second language may give your child a more global perspective.

There’s evidence that children who learn foreign languages, who become bilingual become more worldly and better able to appreciate, understand, and interact with those of different cultural/ethnic backgrounds. But there’s also evidence that a bilingual education can influence how speakers perceive events.Researchers asked 15 subjects who spoke German or English to watch a series of video clips that showed people walking, biking, running, or driving. English speakers tend to situate actions in time. For examples, “I was sailing to Bermuda and I saw Elvis” is different from “I sailed to Bermuda and I saw Elvis.” Conversely, German speakers tend to specify the beginnings, middles, and ends of events, but English speakers often leave out the endpoints and focus on the action. After watching each video, researchers asked subjects to decide if a scene had an ambiguous goal the researchers asked subjects to decide whether a scene with an ambiguous goal was more similar to a goal-oriented scene or a scene. Researchers found that nearly 40 percent of the time, German speakers matched ambiguous scenes with goal-oriented scenes. On the other hand, English speakers matched ambiguous scenes to goal-oriented outcomes 25 percent of them time. The implications of the study are that German speakers are more likely to focus on possible outcomes of people’s actions, but English speakers pay more attention to the action itself.

If a speaker was bilingual, the speaker seemed to switch between the two perspectives depending on what language they were thinking in at the time of the study. The study implies that being bilingual can affect how the speaker frames events and perceives the events.

Bilingual education can change how children make sense of objects and events in their environment.

Cognitive scientists have found that language can prompt speakers to pay attention to certain details in the environment. For example, Russian speakers are faster to distinguish shades of blue than English speakers, for example. And Japanese speakers tend to group objects by material rather than shape, whereas Koreans focus on how tightly objects fit together. Speaking a language doesn’t occur in a vacuum and speakers who become fluent in another language also tend to adopt cultural mannerisms and inflections native to the country of origin. Children immersed in bilingual education may also learn the inflections and perceptions of native speakers and may see objects and events in the environment differently than monolingual counterparts.

Kids who learn a second language at a young age can develop pronunciation proficiencies that parallel native speakers.

If a young child is permitted and encouraged to learn one or more additional languages, they are able to successfully develop proficiencies in the language that they are concentrating on. If a child focuses on a different language at a very young age, they will be able to develop pronunciation skills that are similar to those that speak the language in a native manner. In addition to this, they are able to develop a native form of intonation. Children that focus on learning a second language are often very excited to learn that language and become very open in accepting those openly that speak the language that they are learning.

Kids who speak more than one language are more cognitively developed.

It’s been found that children that are able to focus on a second language have an increased level of development on a cognitive level. One of the main areas that children develop skills in is referred to as “object performance” according to educational professionals. This is the process in which a child knows and understands that an object that they are familiar with has more than one name in more than one language, but that object continues to be the same despite the fact that the object is called differently among various types of nationalities.

Many educators and other professionals have established the fact that learning a new language in more than simply an activity that is linguistic based. Many professionals agree that focusing on a foreign language provides a child with an opportunity to increase their skills in cognitive based problem solving. These types of problem solving skills involve the use of in-depth critical considerations, mental flexibility, as well as moderate levels of creativity. Students that have learned a second language or are in the process of learning a second language have been evaluated on standardized testing procedures used in schools. Surprisingly, these children received higher scores in more than just the verbal aspect of the tests. They also scored higher in math.

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