Over past past couple months we have continuously shared the latest research with you which explores the positive effects of speaking two or more languages on the human brain, e.g. better attention, memory and multitasking. We have been fascinated by a recent study out of Sweden which suggests intensive language learning can make the adult brain grow.
In our aging societies, a phenomenon which currently affects mainly Western societies but that will inevitably spread and become a worldwide trend, research on the positive effects of language learning on the ageing brain is essential. Experts from around the world are currently looking at how multilingualism might help prevent mental ageing, delay dementia or even Alzheimers.
However today, I would like to introduce to research which concentrates on the early stages, namely how babies later in life benefit from growing up bilingual. Scientists at Concordia University, Canada found cognitive advantages when young children grow up in bilingual home and that these cognitive advantages give them an edge over the monolinguals later in life.
Initially, bilingualism might look like a little drawback to parents as babies under the age of two who are exposed to two languages at home seem to have a slightly smaller vocabulary than monolingual babies. They also tend to take longer to pick up new words compared with their contemporaries. Later on though this initial setback is largely offset by the benefits of being bilingual.
The Concordia study in partnership with the Infant Studies Center in Vancouver looked at 181 bilingual parents (who speak English + one other language), 90% of whom regularly switched from one language to another when they interacted with their children.
Although some families tried to stick to a strict policy of one parent one language only, the researchers saw these parents struggle in applying this teaching policy and eventually mix their two languages. The other (larger) group of parents opted for a language mix right from the beginning and continued to mixing languages at home as their teaching strategy.
Mixing two languages is challenging for babies and results in smaller vocabulary early in their lives, and researchers found the more mixing happens the smaller the babies’ vocabularies in their two languages were.
That said, scientists now disagree with older research which believed babies were confused by being exposed to two languages. They now know that babies can identify different languages right from the start. The slight difficulty in vocabulary acquisition might result in matching particular words with their meanings, it seems to be a question of how words appear in context. Canada has had a history in cognitive studies with infants. Scientists can revert on tests from up to a decade ago.
Their conclusions are as follows:
- Overall, bilingual children show a better performance on cognitive tests than monolingual children.
- Truly bilingual individuals have activated both their languages all the time whether they use them or are in a monolingual situation.
- Results are constant brain practice and a cognitive edge thanks to improved neural circuits.
- Improved neural circuits can benefit them later in life as these may compensate failing memory networks.