The Learning Center

Bilingualism and the Brain: How Learning a New Language Affects Your Child

There are many reasons parents may want to introduce a new language to their child. Maybe they have family members living abroad. Maybe their child has expressed an interest in learning a new language. Maybe they’re looking for fun new skills to learn at home. And maybe they just want them to be well-rounded members of a global community!

Whatever the reason, many families wonder about the costs and benefits of dual language exposure. After all, kids’ brains are working hard to develop, and learning a new language must have some effect on that process.

Does Learning a Second Language Cause Confusion in Young Children?

The earliest research on bilingualism in young children in the 1940s and 1950s yielded conclusions that bilingual children were less intelligent than their monolingual peers, due to what some researchers called “mental confusion.” The idea here was that children who were introduced to a new language too early might become confused, and that this would somehow make it more difficult for them to learn in other academic areas too.

Luckily, this theory turned out to be quite false! Issues with the original research surfaced decades later: it was determined that the tests did not truly measure intelligence; that they were often administered in only one language; and that the sample of children studied did not accurately represent the bilingual population. Some weren’t even bilingual at all, but merely assumed to be based on their parents’ names, or countries of birth—hardly determiners of language level.

Nevertheless, the stigma surrounding early dual language exposure still exists, as a result of these faulty conclusions early on. Some parents are hesitant to introduce a new language to their child “too early,” for fear of confusing them or inadvertently causing a learning delay. In reality, exposing children to multiple languages can have enormous benefits for their cognitive development.

The Facts: Bilingualism Helps… A Lot!

As more research surfaces surrounding bilingualism in young learners, we are finding that the benefits of learning a second language go beyond communication. As children’s brains develop, their cognitive functions are working rapidly to improve, and exposure to multiple languages can support this in more ways than one.

Classification and Categorization

As children learn new information, their brains simultaneously develop an important skill: classification. By sorting new knowledge and stimuli into groups, the brain can more easily find it again when necessary.

One prominent child psychologist, Jean Piaget, called these categories “schemas”. According to schema theory, children who are better equipped to categorize new information efficiently will be able to recall and use that information more accurately; in other words, they’ll be better learners.

And, as it turns out, children who have been exposed to a second language are especially skilled at categorization. To use multiple languages requires the ability to access a separate set of vocabulary and syntax based on context; and this ability translates to other schemas, as well.

Executive Function

When it comes to brain development, executive function includes attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility—or the ability to adapt to a shift in rules or stimuli. This last skill in particular has been shown to be particularly well-developed in children who are familiar with multiple languages.

When examined closely, this is hardly surprising; learners need to be able to recognize and adapt quickly in order to use the appropriate language in context. As an added bonus, it seems that this skill shifts into other areas of learning—not just language. In one study, children as young as 7 months old showed greater cognitive flexibility in a variety of tasks if they’d been exposed to more than one language.

Literacy and Reading Fluency

When children learn multiple languages with similar structures (i.e. English and French), the reading skills they learn in one language can help support their literacy in the other.

As they learn the sounds associated with specific letters, words, and sentence structures, children become more confident readers. The more they practice putting these pieces together, the more fluently they can read—and practicing this skill in two languages, particularly if they share the same basic building blocks, can accelerate literacy.

Metalinguistic Awareness

Some researchers speculate that dual language learners’ literacy advancement is due to what is called “metalinguistic awareness,” or the ability to recognize rules and patterns within a language. Fluent speakers have strong metalinguistic awareness in their language; they can distinguish between grammatically correct and incorrect sentences.

As it happens, children who are familiar with multiple languages have stronger metalinguistic awareness in either language than those who speak only one. They can identify sentences with incorrect grammar better than their peers, even those with the same level of fluency in that particular language.

Functional Plasticity

As children learn and grow, their brains are extremely malleable—we call this brain plasticity, and it’s crucial for the learning process. The better the brain can grow and change, the more effectively it’s able to learn and develop.

Several studies on multilingual children have determined that any experience with a second language, regardless of the level of fluency, has a positive effect on brain plasticity. Incredibly, these effects were seen even in kids who hadn’t yet practiced using the language; just being exposed to multiple languages was enough.

Theory of Mind

Possibly the most significant area of brain development affected by multilingualism is theory of mind, or the ability to recognize other people’s perspectives and emotions. Most young children develop theory of mind slowly, believing at first that everyone knows and experiences the same thoughts and feelings that they do.

In studies comparing theory of mind in bilingual and monolingual children, the results were remarkably consistent: bilingual children are better able to understand other people’s mental and emotional states.

Similarly, several studies showed that bilingual children can more readily shift their beliefs when presented with new information. Due to sociolinguistic awareness—or understanding of social conventions embedded within language patterns—children with experience in multiple languages accept new information and change their beliefs accordingly. This is an illustration of advanced critical thinking, which many adults haven’t even mastered!

3 Tips to Make the Most of Language Learning Benefits

Okay, okay, you’re convinced—learning a second language has oodles of upsides. So how do you make the most of these positive outcomes?

  1. Practice Language Every Day. Even if it’s only five minutes, daily exposure can have a huge impact on how well your child retains what they’ve learned.
  2. Let Kids Lead the Way. If learning a second language is going to be a lifelong skill, your child should feel a sense of ownership in the process. Figure out what it is they want to learn, and go from there!
  3. Make it Fun! Children learn best when they love what they’re learning, and there’s nothing kids love to do more than play. If you haven’t already, check out our collection of fun language learning games.

References:

Barac, R., Bialystok, E., Castro, D. C., & Sanchez, M. (2014). The cognitive development of young dual language learners: A critical review. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29(4), 699-714. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2014.02.003

Top 5 Reasons to Learn Chinese

  1.  Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world
    With over 1 billion speakers, you are guaranteed to meet native Chinese speakers all over the world. Every interaction we have is an opportunity to make new connections and experience a new culture firsthand. Chinese people in general are exceptionally warm and welcoming and they will definitely appreciate your efforts to learn their language!
  2. The Chinese language is a portal into an amazing culture
    Maybe you want to explore the ancient classics or learn about Daoism, or maybe you just love Chinese food and want an excuse to eat more Gong Bao chicken. Speaking Chinese opens the gateway to a deeper understanding of 5,000 years of Chinese history and culture.

  3. Chinese proficiency creates countless economic opportunities
    China’s economy has developed so much over the 40 years that it is now the world’s largest by purchasing power parity (PPP). There are now countless professional opportunities—and increasingly so—for those interested in working in China. Proficiency in the Chinese language puts you several steps ahead of the rest of the workforce. In fast, it is often a requirement for those who wish to work in China or with Chinese clients.

    Furthermore, international businesses prefer to hire people who speak more than one language. Speaking Chinese may give you an edge when competing for an important position as China will play a major role in world affairs in the future.

    And don’t forget that China is a wonderful country in which to teach English while developing your language and cultural skills. Teaching English in China is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It benefits your personal and professional in countless ways—from gaining public speaking skills to familiarizing yourself with the world’s second largest economy.
  4. Chinese proficiency unlocks easy travel in the Middle Kingdom
    Traveling in China without speaking the language can be quite challenging. Other than in major international cities like Shanghai, speaking Chinese is an essential part of daily life as many locals do not speak English. Master the Chinese language and gain unique access to the countless amazing wonders China has to offer.

  5. Language acquisition advances your brain function!
    Multiple studies show the cognitive benefits of language learning. There’s possibly no better way to reap these benefits than to study Chinese, a language that is likely very different from what you might have studied before. Imagine communicating using a language that uses no conjugations and no plurals, all whilst using a written form that consists of profound meanings derived from logograms. 太神奇了吧!