People used to think that exposure to two languages was bad for children. It would cause children’s language skills to develop more slowly and stunt their vocabulary growth. Now we know that the opposite is true. Bilingual children, for example, know as many words as monolingual children, but they know some of them in each language. Their brains are more limber, too, and they have more practice at executive-function tasks. Here’s a breakdown of how foreign language education is important at every age.
Bilingual education matters even to developing fetuses. A study by researchers from the University of British Columbia and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in France found that infants whose mothers had spoken two languages during pregnancy displayed stronger interest in hearing each of the languages. Meanwhile, babies of monolingual mothers only expressed interest in the one language. Newborn babies also sucked pacifiers more strongly when hearing vocal sounds from a “new” language, which researchers interpreted as curiosity about something they had not heard while in the womb. Infants in bilingual homes could also tell the difference between two different languages, even if they had never heard the two languages before, just by watching people speak.
This baby was listening even before it was born. (Photo credit: lrargerich)
Infancy and early childhood
Babies are born with brain matter capable of learning every language, from English to Mandarin to Hindi-Urdu to Javanese. As they grow, their brains are wired to communicate in the language(s) that they hear around them. So a baby exposed to multiple languages from birth will have an advantage learning them throughout life.
Exposure to different languages also helps young children with tasks that require a mental process known as executive function. For example, bilingual children are better at switching from one task to another. In a National Institutes of Health study, 6-year-old children were shown a series of images and asked to hit a computer key when they saw pictures of animals. Later they were asked to switch to pictures of colors and hit a different key, the bilingual children were able to make the transition to the new task faster than the monolingual children. The task required three mental processes: working memory– remembering to hit a key for some images and not others and remembering which key goes with animals and which with colors, inhibition– knowing not to hit a key in response to some images, and shifting– being able to transition focus from animals to colors. In this study bilingual children showed better ability to focus, plan, strategize and organize. The results were the same for English-French, English-Spanish, and English-Chinese bilinguals compared to English-only monolinguals of the same economic background and education level.
Bilingual six-year-olds also scored better on grammar tasks than their monolingual peers. All the children knew the same amount of words, although the English-only children knew more English words while, for bilingual children, English words were a percentage of the total vocabulary. In tests of their awareness of English grammatical structures like plurals, possessive, verb tenses, and compound words, English-Spanish bilingual six-year-olds scored highest. The advantage probably came from the combination of exposure to two languages at home and learning English grammar rules at school. At an age at which most children are learning to read and write, bilingual children already had a language advantage.
In what language(s) is she thinking?(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Middle school and high school
The benefits of language learning are important for older children and teens, as well. In U.S. schools, middle school is the age at which most students are required to pass standardized tests and exhibit good study skills that require multiple mental processes, like the listening, categorizing important information and writing that are required to take notes during a lecture. A 2004 study by Ellen Bialystok and Michelle M. Martin asked subjects to first sort red and blue circles and squares by color, and then by shape. Sorting objects by shape is more difficult because the brain focuses more on color and the task requires subjects to ignore that information and put, say, a red square in a bucket marked with a blue square. Bilinguals were more adept at this task because they could ignore the color information quicker and focus only on the shape. In other words, they could deal better with multiple sets of information, a skill that makes bilinguals better at multi-tasking. The advantages for a middle schooler or high schooler paying attention to a lesson in a crowded classroom or ignoring the distractions of email, texts and Facebook alerts to focus on homework are not hard to imagine.
Social interactions take on a new importance starting in middle school as negative social behaviors like bullying become more widespread– negative behaviors that could be combatted, in part, with the cultural awareness and understanding that is part of learning a foreign language.
Learning a second language changes the way you see the world. A study of color perception found that people who spoke Japanese, which has different words for light blue (mizuiro) and dark blue (ao) were more likely to categorize them as different colors than shades of the same color. And, while native Japanese-speakers distinguished between mizuiro and ao, and English-speakers did not, bilingual Japanese-English subjects were more likely to distinguish between them depending on how much of their time they spent speaking Japanese instead of English. A different study in Hong Kong found that our brains react more strongly when looking at colors that are easy to describe in our native languages than colors that are hard to describe. Other studies have found that people who spoke languages with gendered nouns had different perceptions of the same objects depending on whether the object’s name was masculine or feminine in their language. These differences illustrate the importance of learning a language to understand another culture, especially for adults in fields where cultural understanding is key, like diplomacy or international business.
Is she raising her IQ? (Photo credit: francisco_osorio)
In fact, language learning can be linked directly to national security: a March 2012 report reveals that in the United States, school systems are not producing enough bilingual adults to meet the demand for military and foreign service jobs. The report, from a task force co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, finds that insufficient foreign-language education is an educational failure that “puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.”
But it’s not just civil servants who need to be bilingual: language skills are essential for adults in all professions from souvenir sellers to construction equipment and truck manufacturers. And Business Insider reports that people who speak two languages are more likely to make better financial choices.
And, as we have reported here on Bilinguish, being bilingual has a host of other benefits: protecting memory, delaying the onset of Altzheimer’s symptoms, understanding math concepts, and scoring higher on IQ tests.
Are you bilingual? How has speaking two (or more) languages affected you?