The Bilingual Brain - Benefits of learning another language

In an increasingly globalised world, most of the world’s population are bilingual or multilingual (Romaine, 1995). To date, there have been a large number of studies into the benefits and detractions of learning a second language from an early age. For most of the early half of the twentieth century, researchers were actually under the impression that children who were fluent in more than one language were actually at a disadvantage to their monolingual contemporaries, however, this has been continuously disproved since the 1970s.

Comparative research on bilingualism and multilingualism has shown that the complex intellectual processing required to learn another language also has a positive impact on other areas of cognitive and neurological development (Shoghi, Javan, Sara, 2017).

Director of Bright Spark Tutoring, Joanna Murphy says of her own experience, “bilingualism has helped me think about problems from multiple different perspectives. It has also made learning further languages much easier.”

Multi-tasking and executive function

Learning a second language at an early age has been proven to boost a child’s brain power in a number of different ways (Marian, Shook 2012). By teaching a child to recognise new language structures, they gain better attention and task-switching capacities. This is because the process of learning about two or more language systems runs parallel with the need to separate the information about each language. Bilingual children can thus better adjust to environmental change, which leads to a clearer signal for learning (Marian, Shook, 2012). The improved attention to detail explains why bilingual adults learn a third language better than monolingual adults learn a second language.

By teaching children a second language, their multitasking capacity is developed beyond that of a monolingual child. This is due to an increased ability to separate certain parts of relevant information, which is termed cognitive executive function (Bialystok, 2015). People who only speak one language hear a word and compare it with their single set of sound and meaning rules, but people who speak more than one language have two or many sets of knowledge for these words.

Research has identified that infants who, from birth, are exposed to two different languages learn to better discriminate between the languages around them and ignore other sounds. This phenomenon occurs as the executive function is controlled by the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is at its most impressionable from birth to five years of age (Diamond, 2010). At any given time, a bilingual brain must decide which language to use and how much of the other language to control and suppress (Green 1998). This continual unconscious decision-making process significantly enhances brain performance (Bialystok, 2015).

Improved memory and attention

Due to the constant activation of two knowledge sets or languages as described above, bilingual and multilingual people experience improved memory functioning and increased attention span (Yu, Schwieter, 2018). People who learn a second language also display improved decision-making propensity (Keysar, 2012) as they make more analytical decisions when thinking through a problem in a non-native tongue.

Through the process of learning a second or third language, knowledge of the person’s native language is also improved. A increased consciousness of grammar, conjugations, idioms and sentence structure in the language being learned help a student to apply and contrast the rules to their native language (Hell, Dijkstra, 2002).

Social and cultural significance

There are also significant cultural and social benefits of learning a second or third language at a young age. Bilingualism and multilingualism can make individuals more open to understanding and learning about other cultures. The ability to explore a culture through its native tongue or talk with someone whom you would otherwise not be able to communicate with is a significant benefit in todays society.

It is therefore evident that the complex range of positive impacts to be gained from teaching a child a second, or even multiple languages at an early age are hard to ignore. The social, intellectual, cognitive and cultural benefits are abundantly clear and, as is clearly evident from research emerging since the 1970s, the negative side effects of being bilingual or multilingual are hard to define.


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