Scientists have long been debating the impacts of introducing a second language to a child’s early cognitive development. Some are hardcore believers of their long-term benefits, while others are convinced that it is a source of major confusion and developmental hindrance. So which stance does the latest research reside with?
The public dilemma date back to the post-war era of the 1920s and 1940s, where early research involving children from war-torn countries — most of whom were orphans and war refugees — demonstrated their poor verbal language abilities.
As you can probably tell, these studies were highly controversial, riddled with confounding variables and obvious flaws. The researchers attributed the poor test results to bilingualism, instead of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or took account of the children’s lengthy absence from school, which now seem far the more sensible culprits.
This belief was preserved until the early 1960s, when researchers Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert at McGill University in Montreal published a study that saw people’s views start to shift. Their paper demonstrated that it wasn’t just that bilingual children not have cognitive delay or mental retardation, but that their bilingualism actually presented some cognitive advantages.
This was a groundbreaking discovery, as not only was the previous belief proven to be inaccurate, the inverse became true. The then current consensus did not neutralise the bilingualism dilemma, it motivated the exact opposite. It turned the table. The paper proved that children who learn a second language have a valuable asset, are more proficient at concept formation, and boast a greater mental flexibility.
A more recent research published to the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development by Ellen Bialystok found that although bilingual children tend to have a smaller vocabulary in each language than monolingual children in their language, their understanding of linguistic structure, called metalinguistic awareness, is often better than their monolingual counterparts.
Additionally, children who learn to speak a second language early in life demonstrate a significant advantage over comparable monolinguals in solving problems that require meticulous attention control to employ specific areas of the brain while driving out processes that are superfluous and unnecessary. The unique concepts conveyed by each individual word of different languages help transcribe clearer pictures in the developing minds of bilinguals.
These early cognitive advantages may take shape in the later years, as research finds that bilingual adults and older 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.
And the benefits don’t stop there. The advantages that bilinguals proffer with may help them flourish in school, and academic success is a big indicator of long-term happiness. Learning another language can even help prevent or delay the onset of degenerative brain diseases like dementia or Alzheimer’s for older adults.
One little thing to take note of is that Ellen Bialystok’s study also points out that not all languages should be treated equally under broad circumstances. Children learning to read in two languages that share a writing structure, like English and French for example, show accelerated progress in reading aptitude; while for children whose two languages are quite distant, like English and Chinese Mandarin, the benefits may manifest later. One important thing to note is that neither is shown to demonstrate any deficit relative to monolinguals.
So there’s no apparent downside to exposing your child to a second language, and the Linguistics Society has even given tips to monolingual parents to help take advantage of this boost in brain development.
If you’re already bilingual, or part of a bilingual household, then try the “one parent, one language” method. Basically, clarify which parent speaks which language to the baby. That way, everyone knows what to expect — and your baby knows how to respond.
If you aren’t already bilingual, that’s fine too! You can still expose your child to different languages. You can point out foreign foods every time you have them, or watch a bilingual show with your child. As long as you expose them to the foreign words in a consistent way with the same context, they’ll reap the benefits.
Simply listening to 2 different languages can help an infant improve their brain development. An experiment done by the Naja Ferjan Ramirez from the University of Washington used a magnetoencephalogram (MEG) to non-invasively scan the brains of 11-month old monolinguals and bilinguals. Keep in mind that these are times when babies are just starting to learn how to say ma-ma and da-da.
Her MEG scans showed that babies from bilingual households are specialised to process the sounds of both languages, demonstrated by picking up signals from parts of the brain that are most active, compared to monolingual babies who are only specialised to process the sound of their one language.
There’s nothing surprising in that, but the higher strength of brain responses in the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex of bilingual babies means that those parts of the brain are more active than that of their monolingual counterparts, which sets up the brain infrastructure for more demanding future cognitive tasks, such as reading and writing.
Research also says not to worry about your children mixing languages, which is a common occurrence in bilingual households. “It’s a perfectly normal part of bilingual development called “code mixing”, says Mark Antoniu, a psycholinguist from Western Sydney University who specialises in bilingualism and language learning. “They’re not confused. It’s thought to be a sign of bilingual proficiency or competence to mix up the languages.”
In order to reap the maximum benefits from the “bilingual advantage”, it’s best to start at an early age, before your children even starts speaking their first language. It won’t confuse your child, and could even give them a boost in other areas of cognition.