Across the country, many children are being raised bilingually, and research shows that being bilingual can be beneficial for children. It leads to increased activity in the area of the brain that controls impulses, decision making, and self-awareness. In addition, compared to children who speak only one language, bilingual children averaged higher scores in cognitive performance on tests and had greater attention, focus, and judgment. Not all parents wish to raise children bilingually, and many don’t speak a second language themselves, but here’s a few reasons why raising a bilingual child can be beneficial.
Exercising Their Highest Thinking Brains Early and Often
It is believed that in bilingual settings, the brain must actively choose between each language and deliberately focus attention on the chosen language. The research suggests the cognitive challenge of evaluating between two languages activates and strengthens the brain. The theory is that the brains of children in bilingual settings are constantly receiving input from the memory centers holding information about both languages. In order to understand, and later communicate successfully, their brains build the skills needed to "select" which language “translation” is needed. Then, their brain must ignore input from the other language.
The areas of the brain that are activated frequently when bilingual children selectively focus and block the conflicting input from the other language are the brain’s highest level thinking networks. These are called the executive function networks and are located in the prefrontal cortex (just under the forehead).
Using Brain Networks Makes them Stronger
Think of the brain as a series of roadways. That’s the brain network. When any brain network is frequently used, it becomes stronger, like rebuilding roads that are used most often. This process is called neuroplasticity. This is the brain’s response to make the most trafficked roads, or networks, more efficient by adding more and stronger connections.
As their brains repeatedly go between two languages, bilinguals are strengthening other executive functions controlled by these brain networks. It appears that making these networks stronger carries over in building other skill sets that give these children advantages in gaining literacy, numeracy, cognition, memory, judgment, and the “cognitive flexibility” associated with creativity.
Unique Opportunity for Bilingual Homes
This new research encourages parents to retain use of their native language in the home. Unfortunately, many families stop speaking a second language at home due to social pressures and other beliefs, limiting their child’s bilingual brain booster.
One of the main problems is parents’ concern about what has now been proven to be a myth - that exposure to one language is less confusing for children, or that speaking two languages hampers learning to read. Other parents make efforts to focus on English at home in hopes of helping children make the social transition to their new country more successfully.
These mistaken beliefs can cause children to miss out on a unique and powerful opportunity to strengthen their highest brain potentials. Just like our muscles become stronger with physical workouts, the developing brains of children in bilingual environments appear to build strength, speed, and efficiency. Bilingual children use the highest thinking regions in their brains more often than their single-language peers, leading to benefits beyond simply being able to speak two languages. It appears that families who speak another language in the home provide their children with an opportunity to both enrich their language skills as well as giving them a cognitive brain boost.
Bialystok, E. (2009). Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 12 (1):3-11. Cambridge University Press.
Kaushanskaya, M., & Marian, V. (2007). Age-of-acquisition effects in the development of a bilingual advantage for word learning. Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development. Cascadilla Press; Somerville, MA.