What could possibly be the benefits of bilingualism as early in life as 2 years old? Why would we want young children to learn a second language while they are focused on learning their primary one? Many people believe that exposure to multiple languages would be a learning overload at a time when they are also learning how to be friends, count, play on the playground and so much more. However, this is a time in our lives when acquiring a second language comes very naturally. And contrary to popular misconception, there are innumerable cognitive benefits of bilingualism for your young child.
Early Childhood – The Most Flexible the Brain Will Ever Be
A child’s developing brain is essentially a blank slate. A young brain quickly processes and learns all the information that is presented to it. From birth, up to the age of 5 or 6, the brains of young children are uniquely suited to learn a second language. That is, from the formative years of the child through their early childhood, a child rapidly fills their mind with everything they learn from their surroundings. The brain is in its most flexible stage during these years. Learning a second language at this age is as easy as learning the first, as easy as taking their first steps as they learn to walk. Bilingually exposed infants can also easily detect a switch in language as early as 6 months old.
As adult learners, we have to consider grammar rules and practice. But young children absorb sounds, structures, intonation patterns and the rules of a second language very easily. Up until the age of 8, children have flexible ear and speech muscles that help them detect differences between the sounds of a second language. Learning multiple languages at a young age also facilitates natural practice over time that organically reinforces their linguistic skills.
What Are The Benefits of Bilingualism for Children?
The benefits of bilingualism are innumerable, and learning a second or third language will bear fruit lifelong. Adults often learn a foreign language to help develop their career or for academic purposes. But did you know, language acquisition, or simply, learning a second or third language also boosts the overall cognitive development of an individual? Acquiring another language enables a person to develop a variety of mental abilities at all ages. But during the early years of a child’s development, the benefits of bilingualism can truly be maximized.
1. Enhanced development among bilingual infants
Several studies reveal that expanding linguistic skills directly boosts the development of the brain. This holds very true even for very young children. During their formative years, children hold immense capacity for learning new information. Much like an empty sponge, a young brain quickly absorbs key information and even nuances! Early exposure to two or more languages is not a hindrance to the child’s brain. On the contrary, bilingual infancy can help develop a keen linguistic sense in the child’s brain. They can differentiate between subtle phonetic characteristics and even develop a wider speech range.
Linguistic development aside, bilingualism can also enhance the cognitive development of the child. A young child’s brain is faced with several developmental hurdles as it grows. One such problem is object permanence. Object permanence is the understanding that an object continues to exist even when it is no longer visible. Learning vocabularies of multiple languages can help bring perspective to a young brain. Bilingual children learn that an object stays the same even though the object has a different name in a different language (object permanence). For example, an apple remains an apple, even when you call it un pomme in French. Thus, through their bilingualism, they experience an easier, more reinforced development during their early years.
2. Speaking many languages can sharpen the brain
While learning a new language sharpens the mind, it’s also causing it to literally grow. Studies find that the cortical thickness of the bilingual brain is greater than that among monolingual speakers. According to research from the Georgetown University Medical Center, bilingual speakers who use both languages frequently may have more grey matter in the brain regions responsible for attention, inhibition, and short-term memory.
Learning and using multiple languages needs the speaker to exercise their brain more than the average monolingual speaker. As a result, we often find that bilingual children are often sharper and quicker on the uptake when presented with more information. Multilingual people are better at observing their surroundings. They can easily detect anything irrelevant or deceptive. They’re also better than their monolingual peers at identifying misleading information.
Bilingual children are also more adept at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. A 2004 study by psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee found that bilingual youth were more successful at dividing objects by shape and color. Their monolingual peers struggled when the second characteristic (sorting by shape) was added. This suggests the bilingual experience improves the brain’s command center. This enhances the ability to plan, solve problems and perform other mentally demanding tasks. These tasks include switching attention from one thing to another and holding information in mind. For example, remembering a sequence of directions while doing another task.
3. Better decision-making
When a bilingual toddler attempts to communicate, the languages in the brain “compete” to be activated and chosen. The child must select one and suppress the other, which requires attention and the ability for the brain to be flexible, which is possible at this early age. The interference forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.
Because multilingual people are better able to pick up nuances and subtleties in any given situation, they generally have a heightened appreciation for the complexities of the situation. Because of this, multilingual people engage in more rational decision-making. On the other hand, monolingual people tend to base their decisions more on immediate factors and basic emotions.
4. Improves memory
The more you exercise any part of your body, the better control you have over it, the stronger it becomes. The same can be said for the brain. The more you use your brain, the better it performs. Learning a new language not only requires familiarity with an unfamiliar set of vocabulary and rules. Above all, it requires the ability to recall all of this newly acquired information. Absorbing and retaining more information can significantly shorten your learning curve because you can spend more time learning new information instead of re-teaching yourself.
But it doesn’t stop here. Once you learn a new language, you’re able to learn other languages faster. This is because the brain has already stored key skills for learning a language. For example, if you learn how to speak Spanish, you’ve automatically entered the world of romance languages from the Latin root, such as Portuguese, Italian, French, etc.
We’re not just talking about short-term memory benefits here. A study conducted in Luxembourg found those who speak more than one language may be at lower risk of onset memory problems like Alzheimer’s and dementia. The study stated that multilingualism has “a protective effect on memory in seniors who practice foreign languages over their lifetime or at the time of the study.” The benefit appears to be a compounding one, as the risk proved lowest in those fluent in four or more languages.
5. Learning a second language improves the first language too!
Learning a second language does not affect the child’s understanding of their first language. On the contrary, learning and practicing a new language can greatly enhance their understanding of their first language too. Do not fear that learning two languages will confuse or distract your child. Remember, their brains are flexible, and the skills to develop beyond learning a second language is immeasurable. Research repeatedly shows that learning a foreign language increases critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of mind.
Learning a new language actually sharpens your knowledge of your primary language by making you more conscious of its rules and subtleties. When terms such as conjugation, grammar, and sentence structure become everyday phrases while learning a new language, we begin to apply these concepts to our primary language and think about our language’s underlying structure. Exposure to a new vocabulary also provides a wider perspective on words and word structures. A person learning new words would automatically begin to look for commonalities or comparisons between their dominant language, the new language, as well as any foreign exposure they may already have. Second language acquisition, thus, organically promotes an interest in etymology and helps in comprehending words with a more critical understanding.
While we learn the majority of our first language through intuitive absorption, learning a new language requires active learning. As we learn a new language, we may begin to think about our first language in new ways.
With better appreciation and knowledge of both languages, you can become a better writer, speaker, and communicator. Language speakers also develop a better ear for listening, since they’re skilled at distinguishing meaning from discrete sounds.
6. Bilingualism improves communication skills
Learning a new language is a lot more than simply acquiring a new vocabulary or learning grammar. With exposure to a new language, a learner opens up their minds to the very culture associated with said language. They begin to understand the subtle nuances, the minute cultural significance of not only the language, but also the practices, beliefs, and the very cultural identity of every member of that culture. With a comparatively wider understanding of these subtle cultural differences, learning a second language greatly helps in appreciating the differences between the people around us. We begin to appreciate others’ opinions and actions. As a result, multilingual people are better equipped to see the world from different perspectives. This enables them to understand and communicate with people more easily. Strengthened verbal expression and improved social skills are also benefits of bilingualism that can aid your child in the long run.
7. Makes you better at multitasking
Multitasking is an extremely stressful task for those who don’t have practice doing it or have never learned how to do it well. You have to disengage from one activity, switch to a new mindset, and then fully engage in a different activity. Studies find that multilingual people who are proficient at slipping from one language to another are practiced at multitasking. Those who have developed the ability to think in different languages and can move from one to the other become much better multitaskers compared to monolingual people. Bilingual people thus also experience less stress as compared to their monolingual counterparts.
Among the many benefits of bilingualism, the speaker also experiences a heightened sense of order in chaos. Bilingual children may have a superior ability to focus on one thing and change their response, easily indicating “cognitive flexibility.” Both traits require self-control, a very desirable trait in the early childhood classroom as well as life. When a bilingual toddler attempts to communicate, the languages in the brain “compete” to be activated and chosen. The child must select one and suppress the other, which requires attention and the ability for the brain to be flexible, which is possible at this early age. The interference forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.
8. Bilingualism gives a better sense of self-worth, identity, and belonging
Children from mixed backgrounds or children of immigrants often grow up with exposure to multiple languages. At school, they are formally taught their first language. And at home, their parents or family may speak in another. It is easy to lose oneself in today’s world of mingling cultures. One more benefit of bilingualism is how the knowledge of your heritage language can help to reinforce your cultural identity. Regularly interacting in your mother tongue helps you to live and experience your cultural identity.
Immigrant children often tend to face issues with their environment because of the gap that exists between the culture they grow up around and the culture of their background. Knowing their mother tongue deepens their bond with their own heritage. A child in touch with their roots experiences a heightened sense of confidence. Bilingual children from mixed backgrounds find great ease in communicating and connecting with extended family members and people who speak their heritage language. They can deepen their knowledge about their culture and even learn life lessons by learning and hearing stories directly from family members.
9. Benefits of bilingualism for your family
The benefits of bilingualism can also extend to your family. Many immigrant families today speak a different language at home as compared to the language spoken in their place of residence. This language belongs to their native culture and defines their heritage. The heritage language is a solid link between you and your culture. It is through languages, that cultures are able to survive. It is important that we do not lose touch with our roots and risk the loss of the rich and varied cultures from around us.
Leveraging the heritage language at home enables you to improve communication among family members. Being able to effectively communicate in your heritage language helps you to easily connect with members of the family who only speak their mother tongue. Better communication is sure to enhance emotional bonds between members of your family.
Command over the heritage language should allow you to immerse yourself in the culture you belong to. Teaching your child this language is the best way to help them to experience their culture. Practicing your heritage language at home daily boosts your entire family’s sense of cultural identity and belonging. The benefits of bilingualism are not limited to the speaker but to their very culture and community too.
10. Speaking many languages can broaden horizons
Speaking multiple languages can greatly broaden our horizons. When a child learns multiple languages growing up, they boost their cognitive and communication skills. Their ability to converse in multiple languages may also brighten their future prospects. They can more easily travel and work in different countries and cultures as they grow up. Adapting to a new culture is much easier when you already speak the language. Early exposure to multiple languages helps them understand and appreciate different cultures. This helps in increasing their empathy for other ways of understanding the world as well.
Another incredible benefit of bilingualism is the endless entertainment you have access to. As a speaker of a single language, you consume literature and music and movies in your language. Now imagine if you spoke 2! or 3 or 4!! That is double the number of movies, double the music you can understand, and so much more of every medium of entertainment. Bilingual speakers enjoy a multitude of content created in both or all the languages they speak. Sure, many people consume international cinema with subtitles or international music. But bilingual speakers can truly enjoy the subtleties of the arts. They understand the humor, the underlying meanings of lyrics or dialogues, understand cultural references that a non-speaker couldn’t imagine. Thus, an enriched cultural experience is another major benefit of bilingualism, with which I will now conclude my list.
Promoting bilingualism with alphaTUB
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