Is Bilingualism Good for Kids?

New research suggests that raising kids in a dual-language environment might be better for their verbal development than previously realized.  

By | July 1, 2016


For years, doctors and teachers warned bilingual parents not to expose their young children to a second language, for fear they would suffer language confusion and language delays. New research is helping pediatricians and parents better understand the benefits of learning a second language, even for children who have yet to utter their first word.

University of Delaware speech-language pathologist Aquiles Iglesias has helped develop tests to measure whether bilingual children, raised in environments where English and Spanish are used, truly have language delays, or are simply limited in their exposure to English. Pinpointing the difference has long perplexed educators. Iglesias says research now shows conclusively that bilingualism does not cause a language delay in children (Am J Speech-Lan­guage Path, 23:574-86, 2014). “If you look at both languages simultaneously—like what we try to do in our assessment—then these kids are functioning fine,” he says. “If typically developing one-and-a-half-year-old kids have 50 words, for these dual-language learners they might have 50 words, but they’re not all in one language.”

With the old theory of speech delay cast in doubt, scientists are uncovering previously underappreciated benefits of bilingualism: a host of neural and health benefits for bilingual adults, including improved ability to recover from stroke and an increased volume of gray matter (Cereb Cortex, doi:10.1093/cercor/bhv152, 2015). And recent research has suggested that the neural and cognitive advantages may start much earlier than adulthood, perhaps even in preverbal children exposed to more than one language.

One study, from Naja Ferjan Ramirez and colleagues at the University of Washington, found that 11-month-old babies who have yet to utter their first words but are exposed to bilingual family members exhibit stronger brain activity in areas related to executive function compared with babies raised in monolingual home environments.

Ferjan Ramirez says the babies were tested using a completely noninvasive and silent brain recording technique called MEG (magnetoencephalography), which maps brain activity by measuring magnetic changes in neural tissue. “We put them in this high chair, and we played language sounds for them. Some of these sounds were common to both Spanish and English, some were specific to Spanish and some were specific to English.”

In the bilingual babies we see stronger responses in the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex.—Naja Ferjan Ramirez,
University of Washington

Ferjan Ramirez says her results showed that the brains of the monolingual babies were specialized to process the sounds of English while the bilingual babies were trained to process the sounds of both languages equally (Dev Sci, doi:10.1111/desc.12427, 2016). “We looked across the entire brain surface to see where in the brain do these two groups differ. In the bilingual babies we see stronger responses in the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex. And these areas are known to be involved in executive functioning.”

Executive functioning is critical to real-life tasks including the ability to shift attention, to plan or juggle multiple tasks simultaneously, and to think more flexibly. Bilingual babies may therefore have a leg up in this era of constant technology and the temptation to be distracted or to multitask.

Ferjan Ramirez’s study was the first to use MEG to do whole-brain analyses comparing activity patterns in the brains of bilingual and monolingual babies in response to speech. The work indicates that young babies are practicing tasks related to executive function even before they can speak. Ferjan Ramirez says the results suggested that not only is second-language exposure good for children, but early childhood is an ideal time for them to learn.

Other research also points to the benefits of speaking two tongues. In the lab of Diane Poulin-Dubois at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, 39 bilingual toddlers were compared with 43 monolingual toddlers when they were 24 months old and then again when the children were 31 months old. Cristina Crivello, a graduate student in Poulin-Dubois’s lab, says the bilingual toddlers performed better than the monolingual toddlers on tasks assessing selective attention and cognitive flexibility (J Exp Child Psych, 141:121-32, 2016). “Selective attention refers to focusing on relevant information while ignoring distracting information, and cognitive flexibility refers to the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts,” Crivello says. That could have real-world consequences: a child with high selective-attention abilities could have an easier time reading a book in a noisy classroom, for example, she says.

Their results also showed that the more toddlers engaged in language switching—as indicated by an increase in doublets in their vocabulary (e.g., “dog” in English and “chien” in French)—over a seven-month period, the more benefits they accrued in mental flexibility.

To assess the children’s conflict-inhibition abilities, the study participants were asked to put little blocks in a little bucket and big blocks in a big bucket, then told to do the opposite. By performing this “reverse-categorization task,” the children were being forced to ignore certain conflicting information—namely the size of a block relative to the size of a bucket. That challenge of selection and inhibition, Crivello says, is similar to the choices a bilingual baby’s brain must make regularly. When a person speaks two languages, she explains, the dominant theory in the literature is that “when you’re using one of them, you’re inhibiting the other one because both languages are constantly activated.” That is especially true in cases where a word is more easily accessible in one language, but the brain must inhibit that impulse and instead reach for the word in the other language. Since bilingual kids are practiced at this form of inhibition, they tend to perform better on such tasks. The greater the overlap in a child’s two vocabularies, Crivello adds, the greater the inhibition that must take place, so the greater the cognitive benefits.

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You



Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo


Avatar of: v sitaramam

v sitaramam

Posts: 4

July 18, 2016

It is unfortunate that English dominates most of the developing countries. While most of us were brought up on a daily dose of not two but three languages, it was no impediment though it is a favourite hunting ground for politicians and ideologues. In the process they wrecked the native languages to reduce the 'stress' on children, something that the child psychologists coined for enhancing their professional remuneration. The western alphabet and idiom and a great deal of grammer has to be learnt by rote as also possibly the far Eastern languages which do not appear to be too far from the ancient hieroyglyphics. Learning them did not hurt these civilizations by adversely affecting the children and so much for child phsychologists and their tirades against rote learning. Multilingual learning is also rote learning of associations and can only be good. Indian languages on the other hand are written phonetically and the grammer is very rule-bound. In stead of exploiting these for better learning, the country ruined these languages now with the half baked psychologists giving none too bright pronouncements on what is good for the kid and what is not!

Avatar of: JonRichfield


Posts: 135

July 18, 2016

It is purely anecdotal (speaking as one of two lifelong bilingual parents) but our two sons grew up and went to school in a bilingual environment, started reading early, and spontaneously developed into excellent readers and spellers with a modest degree of polyglottism (three languages fluent, with functional smattering of a few more).

No signs of stress, retarded learning, or in fact anything but confident enjoyment of the  consequent enrichment of their environment. We feel that ANY learning enrichment short of what the child finds stressful is beneficial.

Even more anecdotal and subjective, we are of the opinion that the monolingual people we know (a minority) seem to lack a conception of what it means to know more than one language intimately, or why it is more than just a matter of knowing the equivalents of words in two vocabularies instead of one.

Popular Now

  1. Thousands of Mutations Accumulate in the Human Brain Over a Lifetime
  2. 2017 Top 10 Innovations
    Features 2017 Top 10 Innovations

    From single-cell analysis to whole-genome sequencing, this year’s best new products shine on many levels.

  3. Search for Life on the Red Planet
  4. Two Dozen House Republicans Do an About-Face on Tuition Tax