What researchers say about bilingualism before the age of 10

Did you know more than half the world is at least bilingual?

India recognises 24 official languages, South Africa has 11 and Zimbabwe lists 16. Even in countries like Australia, where English is the de-facto tongue, there are still at least 250 First Nation languages spoken.

To be monolingual is to be in the minority.

Yet while bilingualism is the human norm, it’s only recently that hard scientific evidence about the benefits of learning languages has become widely available and corrected some common misconceptions and myths.

Read on to learn what research says about the benefits of bilingualism in childhood and to learn about some popular myths that have been debunked.

The Benefits of Bilingualism

There is no doubt that speaking more than one language has social, economic, and even health benefits.

Children who speak more than one language will grow up to communicate across barriers, work across borders and enjoy a wider variety of music, art, humor and friendships. Humans adopted language learning early on to survive, trade, and thrive.

Along with increased human capital, some experts argue speaking multiple languages can lead to higher incomes. The Economist crunched the numbers and estimated that knowing a second language can earn you up to $128,000 over 40 years.

As we know, money talks, so for nations who want to trade, there are wider economic benefits to language proficiency.

One study in the United Kingdom found that deficient language skills and the assumption that “everyone speaks English” cost the country’s economy around $65 billion a year.

There is also growing scientific evidence to show that the increased neural pathways generated by language learning delay the onset of dementia in the elderly and enable stroke victims to recover brain functions faster.

With a greater understanding of the benefits of bilingualism, the move to celebrate and encourage it has grown in recent years. Currently, 44 US states and Washington, D.C. have approved the Seal of Biliteracy, awarded to students who have studied and attained proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation.

Dispelling Myths About Bilingualism

Far from confusing the brain, languages help children concentrate more, synthesize information better and switch between tasks more easily.

Brain scans show bilinguals have more grey matter. The reason is that switching between languages uses the ‘executive control’ function of the brain regularly. It’s a brain ‘muscle’ that gets stronger with use.

That’s why research shows Canadian French-English bilingual children outperformed their monolingual peers on verbal and non-verbal cognitive tests.

Bilingual children are not confused. Mixing languages is natural and reflects the plasticity and resourcefulness of the human brain.

Being bilingual does not delay speech development nor compound genetic language impairments.

Research has debunked the myth that bilingual children are slower to develop speech. They may know fewer words in each language – but their understanding of concepts across languages is the same as monolingual children.

Research also shows that there is no difference in the rates of speech development issues for monolingual and multilingual children. Some monolingual children experience language delays and disorders, as do some multilingual children.

Why do myths about bilingual children having disadvantages persist?

History is one factor. When modern nation-states developed and governments needed to forge a common civic identity, they stressed the primacy of one language. In the case of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, this was English. Sometimes, this newfound patriotic fervor also fed the perception that foreign languages were somehow suspicious or signified disloyalty.

Interestingly, children who speak multiple languages show more empathy for others.

So – if we accept the science that speaking multiple languages is normal and advantageous – what are the best ways of exposing kids to learning languages?

Bilingual Development

Supporting Bilingual Development for Your Child

How early should language learning begin?

Babies as young as four months old can distinguish faces that are speaking different languages! It is never too early to start exposing your child to multiple languages, but it’s also never too late. Part of the advantage of learning a language early – besides improving the elasticity of a growing brain – is simply that children have lots of time – to absorb words and connect with different speakers. The older a person gets, the more formal obligations intrude. But this simply means an older child or adult needs to be more deliberate about learning a new language.

Do I have to use the ‘one parent, one language’ model?

There’s no consensus on a single method, but we do know that for language acquisition, it is important for a child to hear it spoken regularly. Physical and social interaction is the most powerful medium, but all exposure to language will have an impact.

It’s also a myth that if a child isn’t equally fluent in two languages, they are not bilingual.

“Some bilinguals are dominant in one language, others do not know how to read and write one of their languages, others have only passive knowledge of a language and, finally, a very small minority, have equal and perfect fluency in their languages,” writes Professor François Grosjean who founded the Language and Speech Processing Laboratory at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Languages expand your consciousness.

There are roughly 7,000 languages in the world, so whichever one you learn for whatever purpose, a new language is a new perspective on what it is to be human. And you can never be too human!

My kids may never be as fluent in Hindi as I was growing up (their father is an English speaker whereas both my parents were native Hindi speakers). But ultimately, I’m not aiming for perfection and neither should you.

Research shows we think differently when we use different languages and, fluent or not, bilingual children are learning to love and live in different languages – which literally expands their consciousness.

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