3.10 Language Acquisition: Benefits of Bilingualism
In many parts of the United States, children will ask their parents a question only to get this response: porque because. Some of you may personally know how it feels to get that answer. Literally meaning ”because because”, this is a common phrase in many English/Spanish-speaking households that basically equates to ”because I said so”.
So, why not just say, ”because I said so”? More and more children today are being raised bilingually, or to be completely fluent in two languages. As modern researchers are finding out, there may be some very good reasons for doing this, reasons that go a little beyond porque because.
History of Bilingualism
Bilingual education first started receiving serious academic attention in the 19th century. Scientists realized that bilingual brains did everything in both languages. If a bilingual person is thinking through something in their head, talking out loud, or even subconsciously making decision, their brain is doing it in both languages. They may not be aware of it, but it’s happening, and this means that the brain is conflicted. It can’t process everything in both languages and is constantly fighting to decide which language to use.
While modern researchers still agree that this basic theory is accurate, the implications have changed over time. In the 19th century, it was assumed that bilingual children would be mentally slower than monolingual counterparts. The belief was that children could not concentrate or learn as well if the brain was so conflicted. Modern researchers disagree. Studies since the 1960s have continually supported the idea that bilingualism forces the brain to constantly resolve conflicts, refining mental functions and making the brain work faster and more efficiently. The current theories claim that bilingualism can actually improve a child’s cognitive functions.
Bilingualism and Cognitive Functions
So, how exactly can bilingualism be beneficial? Since a bilingual brain is constantly at work, studies have suggested that bilingual children will have improved executive functions. This term roughly describes the basic role of the brain in daily mental activities, such as planning and problem-solving. In several studies, bilingual children performed better with various mental puzzles, and demonstrated better focus and a stronger ability to switch quickly between tasks.
While most studies of bilingualism are focused on children, it should be noted that bilingualism is now thought to be beneficial throughout a person’s life. In fact, some studies suggest that bilingual brains are more resistant to dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
The Flexible Mind
As researchers began to appreciate the potential benefits of bilingualism on child development, they continually had to ask the question: why? Why does bilingualism actually improve these functions? Right now, the leading theory is that since people use different languages in different situations, the brain has to be constantly paying attention to a person’s surroundings. The brain is always looking for cues to indicate when it’s time to switch languages.
For people who are raised bilingually, this constant subconscious attention to surrounding details can help make the child very adept at switching between various environments. Bilingual children tend to be more flexible moving between various social situations and are generally able to quickly adapt to new learning environments. Overall, since the brain is used to watching for changes in the environment, it is better prepared to deal with these changes. This is also why children who are bilingual may have a much easier time learning additional languages later in life.
Besides the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, there are a few other reasons for children to be raised with access to multiple languages as well. For one, language is culturally important and very often can keep children connected to family members and cultural values. This is especially true of immigrant children who are no longer living near all of their relatives or within their traditional culture. Bilingualism can be a powerful tool that helps children transition between cultures, which is normally a stressful experience.
Lastly, we need to talk about the world we live in. As global cultures and economies become more and more connected, bilingualism is becoming a more desirable skill. Already, many states in the USA have hiring practices that are preferential towards bilinguals. With so much of our economy focusing on communication technologies, it’s no surprise that those who can communicate twice as much may have twice the opportunities.
Bilingualism, or fluency in two languages, was once thought to be bad for children. It was assumed that since the mind was constantly conflicted over which language to use, children’s minds worked more slowly. Since the 1960s, however, the opposite is assumed to be true. Modern researchers now believe that bilingual minds are constantly watching for changes in the surroundings to indicate which language is more beneficial. This, in turn, may help the mind adapt more quickly to many kinds of new situations and increase executive functions of the brain like planning and problem-solving. Bilingualism can also help children maintain family and cultural ties, ease life transitions, and increase career opportunities. Being a good speaker is good. Being a good bilingual speaker is twice so.