Science Made Simple #3: How to Raise My Bilingual Child

The number of bilingual homes are growing.

As of a 2015 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, in the New York metro area alone, “More than a third of the population speaks a language other than English at home, and close to 200 different languages are spoken. ”

On the global stage, more than half of the world’s population can be considered to be bilingual.

Demand for bilingual talent in major industries in the U.S. has doubled within the past five years, particularly in industries with a high degree of human interaction.

As a parent hearing these statistics, you might be wondering — how can I effectively support my child’s language development in a multilingual world?

Before we find out, we need to first understand how the brain acquires language.

The Bilingual Brain

Differences between bilingual and monolingual brains of infants are seen across numerous studies.

Sound discrimination

Babies learn the sounds of language before they are even born. While they are in the womb, they have demonstrated the ability to distinguish between mother voice and other sounds.

Another study found that bilingual infants show greater acoustic sensitivity than their monolingual peers when listening to the pitch of two different violin notes. In other words, they are more attuned to sounds in their environment.

Brain plasticity

Being bilingual has significant implications and accounts for differences in not just the brain structure but also its functions.

Many studies show increased neuroplasticity — functional and phsyical changes in the brain brought about by regular activity.

Did you know that your baby’s brain produces up to 700 neurones each second between the years 0–3?

In this case, specific regions of the brain are more active in bilinguals when doing linguistic tasks e.g. listening to sounds of language, writing, or using grammar.

Greater activation in brain areas of bilingual study participants in naming vocabulary and reading aloud tasks.

Executive functioning

The executive function is sometimes referred to as the ‘CEO of the brain’ and includes a range of mental skills that are key to learning. Those include the following skills that allow us to set goals and get things done:

  • Initating activities — your baby bringing you a book and asking to read together
  • Exercising self control — see the Stanford’s famous Marshmallow Test!
  • Memory — ability to repeat known routines in sequence
  • Attention — ability to focus on performing a task for a prolonged period of time, like drawing a picture
  • Problem solving — ability to complete matching activities, i.e. puzzles

Numerous studies have confirmed that bilingual infants are able to shift attention, switch between tasks and solve problems with greater ease.

Awareness of language

Advantages in bilingual processing are also seen in how they understand and identify different aspects of language (sounds, words, grammar etc).

In one study of 5 and 6 year old monolingual and bilingual children, bilinguals were better able to identify and explain why a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct.

“The bilinguals we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.”

Ageing

Lastly, we also know that the benefits of bilingualism extend beyond childhood alone.

When we look at longer term effects, evidence supports that there is a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms in the bilingual population. In one study that examined medical records of 400 patients with Alzheimer's — on average, bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms 5 to 6 years later than those who only spoke one language.

Raising a bilingual child

So, how can you, as a parent, help your child learn new languages? Here are key, evidence-based tips:

  • Have a good language model: Better language learning occurs when children interact with real people rather than watching videos. Does your child not get enough language exposure at home? Enlisting the help of cousins, grandparents or a baby sitter who speaks that language may be a valuable resource.
  • Create a need for them to use their second language: While taking your baby to a language group once a week is good practice, it may be more challenging to encourage them to continue to use language as they grow older. One well-known technique is the “one parent-one language” model, which proposes that one parent only speaks in one language to the child (i.e. Mom speaks English and Dad speaks Mandarin). Alternatively, bind specific routines or times of the day with the second language (i.e. during meal times, bath times).
  • Code switching between languages is okay: Mixing languages in one conversation is typical for bilingual children ! The consensus from researchers is that children who are raised with more than one language are just drawn on all of their resources to express themselves in the best way they can.
  • Start early! According to researchers from the University of British Columbia and Université Paris Descartes, babies as young as 7 months can distinguish between, and begin to learn two languages with vastly different grammatical structures.
  • Have fun with the language! Children are more likely to be motivated to learn a second language if it doesn’t feel like a chore. Singing songs, playing games and reading books together in the second language may be a good way to encourage its use in the home.

Remember, language development is a complex process.

It takes time and varies between each child, just as the language environment will differ from household to household.

Having a second (and even a third) language is not only a way to communicate and maintain close cultural connections, but can also be a valuable asset to your child’s future.


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