Most of the adults who have attempted or are attempting to learn a foreign language will attest to how difficult and confusing it can be. So when a three-year-old growing up in a bilingual context inserts Spanish words into his English sentences, most people assume that he is confusing the two languages. Research in fact shows that not only is this is not the case, but that there are also a series of advantages to having a bilingual brain.
How can it not be confusing for children to learn two languages simultaneously?
Babies begin to learn sounds even before they are born. In the womb, a mother’s voice is one of the most dominant sounds a baby hears. By the time they’re born, newborns can not only tell the difference between their mother’s language and another language, but also show a capability of distinguishing between all languages.
Language learning depends on the processing of sounds. All the world’s languages put together comprise about 800 sounds. Each particular language uses only about 40 language sounds, or “phonemes,” which distinguish one language from another.
At birth, a baby’s brain has an amazing gift: it can tell the difference between all 800 sounds. This means that at this stage infants can learn any language that they’re exposed to.
Gradually babies figure out which sounds they are hearing the most and between six and 12 months, children who grow up in a monolingual environment become more specialized in the sounds belonging to that one language. By their first birthdays, monolingual children begin to lose their ability to hear the differences between foreign language sounds.
In other words, while a newborn’s brain can distinguish and recognize all of the sounds as individual sounds, the brain of a one year old monolingual child can now only distinguish and recognise the sounds pertaining to his native tongue
What about those babies who hear two languages from birth? Can a baby brain specialize in two languages?
In a recent studied conducted by the University of Washington, scientist studied the brain processing of language sounds in 11-month-old babies from monolingual (English only) and bilingual (Spanish-English) homes. Using a noninvasive technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG), which precisely pinpoints the timing and the location of activity in the brain as the babies listened to Spanish and English syllables, they found that a bilingual child’s brain specializes to process the sounds of both languages. At 11 months of age, just before most babies begin to say their first words, the activity in the babies’ brains reflects the language or languages that they have been exposed to.
But how does this double specialization affect a child’s ability to learn to speak?
A common concern, especially for bilingual parents, is that their child is not learning fast enough, is “falling behind” in one language or will speak later than a monolingual child.
The research conducted by the University of Washington however found that the bilingual babies showed an equally strong brain response to English sounds as the monolingual babies. This suggests that bilingual babies were learning English at the same rate as the monolingual babies.
Parents of bilingual children also worry that their children will not know as many words as children who are raised with one language.
To some extent, this concern is valid. Bilingual children split their time between two languages, and thus, on average, hear fewer words in each. However, studies consistently show that bilingual children do not lag behind when both languages are considered. Vocabulary sizes of bilingual children, when combined across both languages, have been found to be equal to or greater than those of monolingual children.
Another common concern is that bilingualism causes confusion. Part of this concern is due to “code switching,” a speaking behavior in which bilinguals combine both languages. Research shows bilingual children code-switch because bilingual adults around them do too. Unlike monolingual children, bilingual children have another language from which they can easily borrow if they can’t quickly retrieve the appropriate word in one language. That being said, even bilingual two-year-olds can discriminate and adjust their language to match the language used by their interlocutor, using only one language at a time with a specific person if need be. Researchers have shown code switching to be part of a bilingual child’s normal language development, and not, as it is often thought, the signs of languages being misspoken.
And it could even be the beginning of what gives them the extra cognitive prowess known as the “bilingual advantage.”
How is being bilingual good for your brain?
More and more young children all around the world can and do acquire two languages simultaneously and, in fact, in many parts of the world, being bilingual is the norm rather than an exception. It is now understood that the constant need to shift attention between languages leads to several cognitive advantages.
Research has found that bilingual adults and children show an improved executive functioning of the brain – that is, they are able to shift attention, switch between tasks and solve problems more easily.
Bilinguals have also been found to have seemingly increased metalinguistic skills (the ability to think about language per se, and understand how it works). There is evidence that being bilingual makes the learning of a third language easier.
Lastly, this constant switching and choosing from two languages seems to stimulate the brain in ways that help it stay more in shape, and protect it against cognitive decline with ageing and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease for example.
Natalie teaches Year 2 classes. She loves arts and craft and everything “do it yourself”, learning about new cultures and languages, and spending free time outdoors.