Bilingualism is good for the brain!

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Bilingualism is good for the brain!

The linguistic benefits of being bilingual are more than simply being able to speak two languages. Being bilingual has been linked to a number of cognitive benefits. A child learning two languages whose structures and rules are significantly different from each other is required to think in more complicated ways. An example of this is in understanding and being able to distinguish between the use of two different grammatical or syntactical structures. Bilingualism enables the child to increase their understanding of the structure of language and gain a greater awareness of meaning resulting in an increase of metalinguistic awareness. Research has studied how a bilingual individual’s first language and second language interact, and has shown that both languages have an influence on the function of one another, and also on cognitive function outside of language. For example, being able to substitute words from one language to another provides for a greater flexibility in the use, and the way of use of language over monolingual children. This results in more abstract thinking and greater mental flexibility between the meaning and form of a word. Both languages of an individual are constantly unconsciously active and interfering with one another with facilitatory results regarding the processing of words, explaining bilinguals’ advantages over their monolingual peers when it comes to linguistic processing. Research on the cognitive advantages to linguistic development, perception, and attentional and inhibitory control has shown that bilinguals can benefit from significant cognitive advantages over monolingual peers in various settings. Compared to monolingual children, bilingual children:

    • Have a better spontaneous understanding of how language works and find it easier to learn other languages.
    • Tend to be more precocious readers.
    • Have an earlier understanding that people may have different points of view from their own.
    • Are better at focusing attention and at switching between different tasks.

Executive functions are those cognitive processes such as problem solving, mental flexibility, attentional control, inhibitory control, and task switching. Bilingual individuals have been shown over a number of different tasks and situations to be better at such processes; suggesting an interaction between being bilingual and executive functions. Because bilinguals have different representations in each language for similar concepts and therefore need to constantly be aware of which language they are using and which the appropriate word is to be used in that context. This culminates in an advantage of cognitive control, since the ability to switch between languages and select the appropriate word for use is directly linked to the ability to better attend to relevant, or inhibit irrelevant, information. In one study, a non-linguistic card-sorting task where the children required flexibility in problem solving, inhibiting irrelevant information, as well as recognizing the constancy of certain variables in the face of changes in the rules was administered. It was found that bilingual children significantly outperformed their monolingual peers in this task, suggesting early development of inhibitory function that aids solving problems that require the ability to selectively focus attention.

Intercultural Competence

Bilingualism, as well as being good for the brain also brings social advantages since language and culture are inextricably linked. Differences between cultures are manifested in, for example, rules governing behaviour on meeting someone for the first time, discussion of certain issues, or the acceptable physical distance between interlocutors. Members of a culture acquire such rules unconsciously while growing up. Growing up with two languages means being exposed to two cultures. This leads to biculturality, i.e. belonging to two cultures. This is a type of competence that is related to understanding and seeing the views characteristic of a particular culture as just one perspective among many, like a scientist may view the world in a scientific manner. As such, differences between cultures are understood as “normal” rather than something to be judged as good or bad according to one’s own standards. As intercultural competence develops an awareness of the need for different cultures to co-exist as well as the ability to accept others in their difference emerges. This ability to manage in different worlds is a characteristic particularly strong in bicultural, bilingual people. Intercultural competence can be acquired through growing up bilingual because by learning a second language we not only enrich our linguistic repertoire, but also learn about a new culture. In this manner we broaden our worldviews, as we become aware that there exist different ways of life and seeing the world. This certainly does not mean that we are renouncing our own identity – on the contrary, we are expanding and enriching it! Intercultural education and upbringing as practised here at Cambridge International School is therefore included in the process of English language learning. In a broad sense because interaction with native English speakers from different backgrounds and cultures allows the child to perceive and develop an intercultural awareness. In a directed sense because our intercultural education programme develops the ability to perceive not only the different but to recognise and interact with it by using stories, images, and media. These skills can be acquired already from an early age, when the attitude towards a different (foreign) culture plays an extremely important role. Already from a preschool age children develop conceptions of other cultures as well as being open to interacting with them thereby broadening and diversifying learning.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Don’t children get confused when they hear two different languages spoken?

The short answer is no. Children are incredibly sensitive to the different ways people speak. Even when they only hear one language, they learn very quickly about differences between the way men and women talk, the difference between polite and impolite ways of talking, and so on. For children, the bilingual situation is just a matter of another difference between people!

Don’t bilingual children ever mix their languages up?

Like adult bilinguals, bilingual children often use words from one language when speaking the other. (This is called code-switching.) But this doesn’t mean they are confused about which language they are speaking. Many languages have more than one word to describe something and may even incorporate loan ‘foreign’ words into their language. Indeed, in speaking to monolinguals, bilingual speakers are careful to use only the relevant language.

So how do we start teaching our children two languages?

The most important things in language development are exposure and need. Children always feel the need to interact with the world around them and so if they are exposed to a different language from when they are very young, they will, they will learn it. By enrolling your child in a good international school, your child will be exposed to English in varied circumstances with different people and as they need to communicate with the people around them so they will learn.

Do you really mean that if our children are exposed to two languages from birth they will learn both, just like that?

No, but children can do this with no difficulty, and it doesn’t do them any harm. The hard part is making sure they have enough natural exposure to English. Whilst at home your child will speak the ‘home’ language (Japanese), which they will view as the most important language. It is essential therefore that you provide enough opportunities for your child to use the “less important” language (English) in a way that isn’t forced or artificial. The best way is to put children in situations where only the “less important” language is used so that there is no temptation to mix languages or revert to the “more important” language. This is why having your child learn English in and educational establishment like Cambridge is very important.

Would it be better to start teaching the second language after children have a good start on the first?

No, definitely not. All the research points to as early exposure of second languages as possible. Introducing a second language later not only makes it more difficult to learn and absorb but is also guaranteed to make your child think it is less important and maybe not worth the effort.

My children used to speak our home language just fine, but now that they’re going to school, they mix it up with English all the time. What can I do?

Relax. Language mixing is normal where everyone speaks both languages. It doesn’t mean that the children will forget one language, and it doesn’t mean that they can’t tell the difference any more between two languages. You can understand this kind of language mixing if you keep in mind that simple exposure is an important ingredient of children’s language development. When your children were small, they were probably only exposed to your home language – say Japanese. Now that they are going to school, they are exposed only to English for hours a day, and they are learning all kinds of new words and new ways of using language, but only in English. Your child may not know the Japanese word for ‘principal’ but they know it in English. When they use an English word in a Japanese sentence, tell them what it’s called in Japanese rather than worrying that they’re losing their home language.

All the children in the kindergarten can say some nursery rhymes or a few phrases in English, but my child is not saying anything. Is this normal?

Yes, it is completely normal. This is known as the so-called “silent period” and can be observed with children who learn a second language in school or in kindergarten. It is not yet known why this happens, but it is a fact that a child can be silent for a long time, for up to six months and even longer, and then suddenly start talking as well as other children from the group, as if during that period he/she had been accumulating knowledge. Generally speaking, later appearance of speech compared to comprehension is a normal phenomenon in both first and second language acquisition: comprehension of language always develops faster than the ability to speak it.

My child could speak English last year but now he suddenly seems to have forgotten everything. How is that possible?

This, too, is a well-known phenomenon. Second language acquisition does not follow a linear path, particularly where grammar is concerned. So-called “U-shaped” development can often be observed: for example, a learner who has already acquired particular grammatical forms and started to use them correctly may after some time give the impression that he/she has forgotten everything. A well-known example are English irregular verbs, where over a period of time a learner may use different forms in the “went” – “goed” – “wented” – “went” order. One explanation of this phenomenon is that the natural development of language involves developmental sequences and that these sequences follow one another in a specified order of acquisition.

My child watches cartoons in English. I think that this is the best way to learn a foreign language. Am I correct?

Watching cartoons in addition to engaging in conversations and other ways of personal interaction in a foreign language can be useful. However, if a child’s contact with the foreign language is limited to only watching television, without personal human interaction, there is little chance that the child will acquire the language to a level at which he/she could use it in communication. By watching television one can unquestionably learn some words or expressions in a foreign language but live speech and human interaction are much more important for effective foreign language learning.

Some language schools offer “fast methods” guaranteeing successful language learning in a very short period of time. How realistic are such promises?

They are nothing but promises and marketing slogans. As a rule, the road to attaining a high level of proficiency is very long, even when the ideal conditions have been met (linguistic aptitude, motivation, extensive exposure to the language, frequent use of the language, etc.). However, there are ways of learning and teaching a foreign language which may give the – at least ostensible – impression that the learner is fluent. This can be achieved, for example, by providing the learner with a number of phrases and so-called formulae that are frequently used in communication.