The Gifts of a Bilingual Brain

While some of the benefits of raising your child with the gift of more than one language are obvious, others are not. Parents know that early language acquisition will allow a child to speak that language as a native speaker would, with no accent.  Being able to speak more than one language gives children a competitive edge in a global environment.  A second language opens up a world of travel opportunities without the hassle of carrying around a translation dictionary. But there are some less obvious benefits of knowing two languages.

For a long time, people worried that introducing babies to more than one language would hamper their learning of their first language. In fact, a study at the University of Kentucky showed that the brains of bilingual babies did indeed take longer to reach milestones of sound differentiation, but rather than having a negative effect on their learning, it extended their period of brain flexibility so that they could learn those various sounds well.

Another study conducted at the University of Haifa revealed that bilingual sixth-grade students learned a third language much more easily than the monolingual sixth graders. The University of Washington studied adults’ ability to switch between different cognitive tasks and found that the bilingual adults were significantly faster.  What’s more, the fMRI scans showed that the brain activity during the task was entirely different between the bilingual group and the adults who only spoke one language.

Much attention has recently been given to keeping elderly brains sharp with mental exercises and brain games. Researchers are wondering if the more sophisticated operating system of the bilingual brain might provide some protection against things like dementia late in life.

It is fair to say that a bilingual brain operates differently from a monolingual brain, and that bilingual people always come out ahead. Studies have shown that bilingual adults and children do better staying focused on tasks and ignoring distractions.  Our brains are capable of doing so much more than we can imagine.  Exercising those infant brains by giving the gift of a second language is an easy way to expand the canvas of learning opportunities.

Even parents who are not bilingual have a variety of options to help their children learn a second language, from Spanish immersion daycares to a French-speaking part-time nanny. One can often find things like local meet-up groups who want to speak German together.  With the advent of baby classes like Kindermusik and Little Gym, it is only a matter of time before language-immersion classes become the norm.  Additionally, parents can play movies in foreign languages, listen to foreign-language songs, or pop in a vocabulary DVD with native speakers, like Dragonfly Video Flashcards.

Giving children the gift of a second language is worth serious consideration. While scientists still have much to learn about the different ways that bilingual brains behave, it has become increasingly clear that there are many hidden benefits to being bilingual.