How Being Bilingual (As A Child) Betters Your Brain

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It used to be the general consensus that being bilingual was not good for children. The practice was frowned upon by teachers and education experts because it was believed that trying to speak two languages at the same time confused children and made it difficult for them to learn either language properly. Now, however, thanks to researchers such as Canadian psychologist Dr. Ellen Bialystok, many educators recognize the value of childhood bilingualism.

Bialystok tried to assess how fluency in two languages affects the brain by working with children and adults who are bilingual not out of choice but out of necessity — immigrants who have come to Canada speaking a language other than English, while the rest of the population, at school, at work, and so on, speak English. Bialystok and her research team began by using functional MRI scans and administering an experiment called the Eriksen flanker task: “We showed them a line of five arrows, they had to press a button to indicate which direction that the middle arrow was pointing,” she says. “When the arrows all point in the same direction, it’s easy. But when the other four arrows point in the opposite direction, the middle arrow is incongruent with the rest, and a person’s response becomes a bit slower.” What was interesting was that bilingual individuals were faster at being able to identify the incongruent arrows. “Around 75 milliseconds faster,” Bialystok says. “We also observed that, as they went about completing the task, different brain networks were activated.”

Despite the fact that this task was not a verbal one, the bilinguals’ brains processed and responded to it in a different way from the monolinguals. The part of the brain that was activated was the executive control system. “This network, in the front and subcortical regions of the brain, is not usually used for language,” says Bialystok. “It’s the part of the brain that helps us plan, have abstract thoughts and filter sensory information.” So why would this part of the brain be different in bilinguals? “Bilinguals have a very different task to do when they are speaking,” says Bialystok. “At any moment, their brain is having to sort through the two competing languages and choose the correct word in the correct language appropriate to that situation.” So if a child is at school, his brain needs to choose English words over his family’s native tongue, while at home, the opposite is true. “This process appears to change the way the brain approaches problems,” says Bialystok. “A bilingual needs to filter out unnecessary information — the other language — and so the brain also responds differently when doing other tasks that require filtering of information.”

Research such as Bialystok’s has helped change the attitudes of educators in how they approach children and their parents in terms of bilingualism — it has also meant that many parents who might have shied away from it are instead trying to teach their children more than one language. Second-language books, videos, and music are more popular than ever.

These changes are great, but education policy still has a long way to go before it catches up. According to Kendall A. King, associate professor of second languages and cultures at the University of Minnesota, “While decades of research has shown us the benefits of bilingualism for children, bilingual education is banned or minimally supported in many places in the U.S. — Arizona and California come to mind in particular.” In Canada, commitment to bilingualism is far better — there is support for French immersion programs, as well as for First Nations and other languages.

Where the school system can’t be relied upon to provide bilingual education, parents can do a lot to help their children learn two languages. Whether this is successful depends on how consistent parents are, what community and neighborhood support exists, and whether or not they themselves are fluent in the language being spoken — a child will not learn to be bilingual simply by listening to music or watching the occasional foreign-language movie.

“There is not one simple effective way to rear children bilingually,” says King, co-author, with Alison Mackey, of “The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language,” a book which, in addition to looking at different approaches to teaching children second languages, lays out some common challenges associated with bringing up a child with two languages. “Each family and each child is different, and there is no magic bullet.” King says decades of research has shown that bilingualism and second-language learning can bring benefits to children, both socially and cognitively. “Most parents ‘get’ that bilingualism offers their kids an ‘edge,’ and we know more and more — and have a greater number of tools and recourses — to introduce languages to kids in ways that are engaging, meaningful, interactive and even fun.”

Aging and Bilingualism

Adaptation of the brain could also be the reason older bilinguals with Alzheimer’s show fewer signs of cognitive malfunction than those who only speak one language. “The brain is more robust, its abilities and functionality are more distributed, so when Alzheimer’s begins to take effect, a bilingual’s brain is better able to adapt,” says Bialystok. “It can draw on different parts of the brain to complete a task, rather than limiting itself to one area.”

Of course, the next question is, How can I get myself some of this bilingual brain ability? “Unfortunately, these benefits aren’t necessarily going to be seen in individuals who choose to learn a second language later in life,” says Bialystok. “Fluency is required, and the second language needs to be spoken regularly, too, as in a situation where a child speaks one language at school and another at home.”

Furthermore, the benefits of dual language aren’t as strong if the second language is learned as an older adult. “Two languages need to be spoken regularly from at least the age of 20,” adds Bialystok. “But that’s not to say that learning another language after that age isn’t good for the brain. There is plenty of evidence that shows learning new things, including languages, helps prevent the onset of age-related mental degeneration. This brain adaptability that we see with bilinguals is different [from] that.”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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