THE SURPRISING BRAIN BENEFITS OF EARLY BILINGUALISM
Most people around the world recognize the value of speaking a second (or third) language. The potential benefits for personal communication, educational enhancement, and career development are clear. So, an increasing number of students of all ages are enrolling in language courses in schools, at work, and online. And while learning a language is possible at any age, research shows that the most advantageous time to be immersed in a second language is before the age of 7.
In fact, the earlier a child begins learning a language, the more beneficial it is–and not just because it’s easier to learn through play than through word lists and drills! Numerous studies have shown that bilingual children, in addition to having the added ability of communicating in two languages, have a significant boost in the development of what is called “executive function”–an important cognitive process related to attention.
Bilingual children must learn a critical series of cues that help them choose which language to pay attention to–and which to temporarily ignore. This choosing is complex–these young children must notice who is speaking, which language the speaker is using, in which language they are expected to respond, and then decide what to say–all within a second or two! This brief moment of “conflict” as the children waver between two languages stimulates not only their executive function, but their abilities in other areas.
One quality that seems to be affected positively is empathy. In several studies, bilingual children showed more empathy than monolingual children. Neuroscientists suggest that it may be due to their increased comfort with conflict after months or years of navigating two languages. They become accustomed to the struggle required to communicate, they recognize when others are struggling, and they exhibit more patience. Another difference shows up in certain tasks requiring creativity. For example, it has been shown that young bilinguals are better at creating novel drawings and calculating visual perspective. In another study, children who were fluent in two languages showed greater impulse control in a number of settings, choosing long-term gains over short-term rewards.
Of course, it is possible for those who learn a second language as an adult to reap some of the same rewards. Research suggests that learning a second language may reduce the likelihood of dementia later in life. Those of us who have made mistakes while trying to use our new vocabulary are more compassionate toward others who do the same.
But think about this: children growing up bilingual have the remarkable advantage of using their enhanced executive function for at least a decade longer than adolescent or adult learners, and they do so at the most critical period of brain development. What else might be enhanced by early bilingualism?
More research is needed to determine the full range of differences exhibited by bilingual children compared to their monolingual peers, and to shed light on why learning a second language as a young child provides so many advantages. For some parents, it may be enough to know that bilingualism is a major predictor of academic success, and that academic success predicts the long-term health and wellbeing of adults.
Though there is more to learn, this much is certain: giving your child the opportunity to be immersed in a foreign language in a loving, playful setting before the age of seven is one of the smartest decisions a parent can make. If you are looking for a way to dramatically boost your child’s intellectual, emotional, and social development, there is no better option than going bilingual.
* Maya Frost is the head teacher at HLC. She is the author of THE NEW GLOBAL STUDENT, published by Crown/Random House in 2009, and the parent of four multilingual adult daughters.