Being able to speak more than one language has always been a great skill to have. But being bilingual can also offer numerous benefits to the brain, making it sharper and healthier.
The Brain Benefits of a Bilingual Brain
Compared to the monolingual brain, the bilingual brain is better at:
- paying attention – greater focus and resistance to distractions
- multi-tasking abilities aka task switching (or cognitive flexibility – one of the executive functions)
- spatial working memory tasks
- creative thinking and demonstrates greater creative ability
The Health Benefits of a Bilingual Brain
Being bilingual can also confer health benefits, such as:
- reduced risk of stroke
- faster stroke recovery
- delayed onset of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease
- lower stress levels
- delayed effects of old age
Myth: Babies Learning Two Languages at Once Get Confused
For a period of time, we believed that letting babies learn more than one language at a time would confuse them and make it harder for them to learn either language well. Fortunately, research does not support this idea.
No scientific study has ever shown that a young child’s brain is wired to learn only one language. According to research, children who learn two languages simultaneously go through the same processes and progress at the same rate as children who learn only one language. They begin to start talking and say their first words or first sentences within the same time frame. – Montreal Children’s Hospital
The Downside of Learning Two Languages from Birth
Are there any downsides for children learning two languages at the same time? According to the research from Florida Atlantic University, they do take longer to learn both languages:
Because bilingual children’s input is divided between two languages, on average, they receive less input in each language compared to children who receive all of their input in just one language. As a result, bilingual children develop each language at a slower pace because their learning is spread across two languages.
However, according to the Millennium Cohort Study, even though children who are educated in their second language may initially lag behind around three, four and five years old, they soon catch up and outperform their peers by age seven.
Factors Affecting Bilingual Proficiency
How well children are able to learn each language is dependent on the quality and quantity of language input. Ideally, they need to hear both languages regularly and spoken by a proficient speaker. I guess that explains why I have always struggled to teach the boys Mandarin – there was too little exposure at home and I could barely pronounce the words myself.
“The bilingual child, like the bilingual adult, will develop competencies in each language ‘to the extent required by his or her needs and those of the environment.'” – Erika Hoff, Ph.D., psychology professor and director of the Language Development Laboratory in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.
Their attention to learning is also affected by the needs from their environment. If there is no need to speak the language, they will be less motivated to learn the language. Since everyone in our house spoke English, there was never a need to speak Mandarin. No need to speak the language meant no urgency or desire to learn it.
More Reasons for Bilingual Education
They found clear bilingual/monolingual differences. By the end of the first day of training, the bilingual brains, but not the monolingual brains, showed a specific brain-wave pattern, termed the P600. P600s are commonly found when native speakers process their language. In contrast, the monolinguals only began to exhibit P600 effects much later during learning — by the last day of training. Moreover, on the last day, the monolinguals showed an additional brain-wave pattern not usually found in native speakers of languages. – Science Daily
Even as an older monolingual, it is still worthwhile learning a second language because it remodels the brains, making it better by enhancing its structure and increasing its connectivity.
The Benefits at Any Age
There is a tendency to associate second language learning with children and youth. If you don’t aim for bilingualism from an early age, you can forget about it entirely. While it is true that learning a second language is easier the earlier you start, there are still plenty of reasons why you should encourage your children to pick up that second language even if they missed the early childhood window.