Bilingual Brains

Living in south Texas, my daughter June has already picked up a lot of Spanish, only referring to water as "aqua" and eggs as "huevos", and today she started at the Mustard Seed Academy, a full Spanish Immersion school. When June was just a baby, I read Thirty Million Words by Dr. Dana Suskind, a research-based book that proves that a child's brain grows 85% in the first three years of life, and a warm, loving positive language environment greatly enhances that growth, which affects life-long learning. In her book TMW, she shares the latest research on bilingualism, and discusses the verbal and non-verbal advantages of children who are bilingual. After reading this research, I knew I had to take advantage of the ubiquity of bilingualism that exists in San Antonio, and luckily for us, the Mustard Seed was just three blocks away.

Being bilingual not only enhances language development, but also increases brain development, self-regulation, executive function, focus and even empathy. "Traditional wisdom" claimed that speaking more than one language negatively impacted intellectual development and IQ, but Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert exposed flaws in those studies that were conducted before 1962, and rely on recent advances in fMRI, or brain scan, studies to see what actually happens in the brain when children learn two languages, according to Suskind. 

Learning two, or more, languages positively impacts both executive function, which is the ability to carry out a task, and self-regulation, the ability to control oneself. Here's why: when a child's developing brain is having to actively inhibit one language while discerning meanings in another, it helps the brain ignore distractions and focus, increasing executive function. In fact, those who are bilingual always have both languages at hand, and their brains constantly monitor which one to use. According to Professor Ellen Bialystok, a leading researcher in the field, "We might expect that bilingual speech would be full of errors, that sometimes you slip and the wrong language comes out, but that actually rarely happens." That's because the bilingual brain is always ready to be active in both languages, and to respond appropriately based on the information it is receiving. This helps build self-regulation in the brain because the brain is having to stop and think of the appropriate response to the input it's receiving. (Suskind, p. 121).  

In addition, being bilingual increases a child's level of empathy, or the ability to take the perspective of another person. Empathy may not seem too important, but research shows that it is essential for effective communication because one must understand the intention of the speaker in order to effectively communicate back to him or her. A study by Samantha Fan, Zoe Liberman, Boaz Keysar, and Katherine Kinzler, from the University of Chicago asked children who were bilingual, monolingual and those who had simply been exposed to another language to move an object that was blocked from the adult's point of view. The children could see a range of differently sized cars including a small one that the adult could not see. When the adult asked the children to move the smallest car, the children who had been exposed to another language moved the medium car 75% of the time because they knew that was the smallest car the adult could see, which shows that they understood the perspective of the adult. This suggests that kids who are exposed to more than one language are better able to understand different perspectives better, an important skill for communicating effectively. 

Last, Suskind notes that it is important for parents to speak to their children in their native language, no matter how well-educated or proficient the parent may be in another language. The reason is that no matter how proficient the parent may be in that language, it will never match their native tongue in vocabulary, syntax, nuance or overall quality, and that is not as beneficial to the child's cognitive development (Suskind, p. 123). The best case scenario, according to Suskind's research, is the parents speak their native language to their children at home, then expose their children to a native speaker of another language as often as possible. With this strategy, Suskind writes, ultimately these children can have what very few Americans have traditionally had: two languages, and that is a great strength.