When I was getting my Master’s in Teaching English as a Second Language, I was fascinated how multilingual children learned a second language. We all know that their brains are wired differently, that they are little sponges soaking up what they hear and see in their environment, and that they pick up languages faster than us adults. It was a given that I would raise my children with more than one language. I knew that while infinitely rewarding, it would also be hard work to speak my non-native, non-dominate language to them, in a pretty monolingual community. Fast-forward 4 years and my first daughter was born- now it was time to put theory into practice. Having my studies come alive (quite literally), and observing how my daughter used her 2 languages was fascinating. One time when she was a little over 2 years old, she was asking me for something that I struggled to understand:
V: “No!!! uncky!!!!”
(repeat several times with me guessing: “Uncle Timo? Uncle Nico? Uncle Mario?)
V: Looks up to the ceiling and thinks for a second. Then as clear as day says “mono, mommy, mono.”
Me: “OH!!!! Monkey!!!!”
The smile on her face showed me her satisfaction, almost as if a lightbulb had gone on. My daughter had translated for me, her first time taking advantage that we both spoke another language to get her point across. In her mind, mono and monkey were synonyms for the same animal. I laughed out loud and started clapping- I was awe-struck that she would think of that, and I vividly remember this interaction almost 5 years later. Within a week she used her bilingualism with me again when I couldn’t understand that by “-ito” she meant “conejito” (and not pajarito) when looking out the window and point to a “bunny, mommy! BUNNY.” It was a whole new world in understanding her! Besides being able to express herself in more than one way, what are other advantages to being bilingual? Let’s look at some of the many benefits of young children learning another language, from both the research professionals and from my experiences raising 4 kids to be bilingual.
Despite common misconceptions, there is no scientific evidence that hearing and acquiring 2 or more languages can lead to delays or disorders. Children around the world are growing up in multilingual homes and communities with no problems; in fact, these children have advantages over their monolingual peers. Besides the obvious benefits (being able to speak to a wider range of people, having career advancements in the future, maintaining contact with home culture and family, expanding cultural knowledge, etc), there are physical differences in the brains of bilingual individuals that give them cognitive advantages over monolinguals.
What are the Cognitive Advantages?
There is a common and inaccurate belief that children who are bilingual are at a disadvantage in school, because the multiple languages somehow hinder their academic ability. An excellent article regarding the cognitive effects of bilingualism is written by Ellen Bialystok, and appeared in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (2007). In it, she reviews empirical data from young preschoolers to adults over 60 who have grown up with more than one language. The research has shown that bilingual preschoolers are better at staying on task and filtering out distractions than their monolingual peers. This advantage is carried out through adulthood, when bilingualism appears to play a role in preventing cognitive decline in people over 60.
In another study, bilingual children scored higher on the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, a commonly used IQ test for children) in 4 sub-tests: similarities, digit span, picture completion, and picture arrangement (Ben-Zeev 1977). A more recent study showed that bilingual children are able to perform certain cognitive tasks more accurately than monolingual peers, and are better “multi-taskers” (Pettito 2004).
In another article by Bialystock, she looks at the acquisition of literacy in bilingual children. She posits that the pre-literacy skills (oral language proficiency, phonological awareness and understanding of the symbolic nature of print) and the ability to read transfer across languages and systems. Therefore, “children who have learned skills in one language can potentially benefit from that mastery by applying them to the other.” I have seen this in my 2 older children, who are now learning to read in English at school, and in Spanish at home. When they learn to “sound it out,” learn about silent letters, or dipthongs they transfer this skill to both languages. In fact, in a study of monolingual and bilingual 5 year olds, the bilingual children showed a higher level of phonological awareness (syllables, sounds, awareness of what makes up the word) than their monolingual peers (Loizou 2003).
A study by Ianco-Worral(1973) showed that 4-6 year old bilingual children develop semantically 2-3 years ahead of monolinguals; this means they show more advanced processing of verbal material, and that they can separate sound and meaning at an earlier age than monolingual kids. Truly bilingual children have better reading comprehension skills (Mumtaz 2001) due to advanced metalinguistic abilities (D’Anguilli 2001).
While I am not suggesting that all bilingual children are smarter than monolingual children, I am attempting to illustrate that teaching your child another language is not going to slow them down academically. Contrary to advice by some well-meaning speech therapists and teachers, learning another language will always be a positive addition to your child’s education.
One final story. We adopted my son in China when he was 3.5, and brought our 3 year old daughter with us. While in China, one of the first nights we had him with us we were giving the two 3 year olds a bath and turned around to grab a towel. As clear as day my daughter said to our son “Bu da mei mei!” My husband and I turned to each other with wide eyes: “She just said don’t hit little sister…. How does she know that!? Did you teach her?!!?” Our only explanation, was that she must have heard one of the guides telling one of the kids not to hit (bu da), and someone must have called her “little sister” (mei mei). She soaked it up, and put it together in an instant. Again, we were shocked and awed by our little language machine- virtue of necessity to protect herself against her brother’s playful tactics, she learns to defend herself in Mandarin. Just another advantage of being multilingual.
Ben-Zeev, Sandra. (1977). The Effect of Bilingualism in Children from Spanish-English Low Economic Neighborhoods on Cognitive Development and Cognitive Strategy. Working Papers on Bilingualism. 14.
Bialystok, E. (2007) “Cognitive effects of bilingualism: How linguistic experience leads to cognitive change.” International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 10: 3: 210–223.
Bialystok, E. (2007). “Acquisition of literacy in bilingual children: A framework for research.” Language Learning. 57: 45–77.
D’Anguilli, Amedeo. (2001). “The development of reading in English and Italian in bilingual children.” Applied Psycholinguistics. 22: 479-507
Ianco-Worrall, A. (1972). Bilingualism and cognitive development. Child Development. 43:1390-1400
Loizou, M. and Stuart, M. (2003). Phonological awareness in monolingual and bilingual English and Greek five-year-olds. Journal of Research in Reading. 26: 3–18.
Mumtaz, S. and Humphreys, G. (2001). “The effects of bilingualism on learning to read English: evidence from the contrast between Urdu-English bilingual and English monolingual children.” Journal of Research in Reading. 24: 113–134.
Petitto, Laura-Ann & Dunbar, Kevin. (2004). “New findings from Educational Neuroscience on Bilingual Brains.” Conference on Building Usable Knowledge in Mind, Brain, & Education Harvard Graduate School of Education October 6-8, 2004