New parents face enough decisions to make as it is, but for bilingual parents, there are even more. Which language should their child learn as a primary means of communication?
The oldest mainstream view on language learning was that learning a second language was unhealthy for the human brain. Since then, researchers at York University in Toronto have come out saying that becoming bilingual will actually strengthen the brain and improve focus.
“Bilinguals are more efficient in resolving mental competition. They’re apparently able to keep languages separate while keeping them both available and active in their minds at the same time,” said Judith Kroll, psychology professor and director of the Center for Language Science at Penn State, according to KQED.
Research from Dr. Ellen Bialystok at York University suggests that the human brain has an executive control system for using languages that also sorts the languages to be used when they need to be, allowing two languages to be stored and not be intertwined when being used. Bialystok said the constant use of this system allows it to become more efficient, especially for bilinguals.
“Our research has shown that bilingual children have more advanced ability to solve problems in which there is misleading perceptual information than comparable monolingual children who are otherwise at about the same developmental stage,” She wrote on the York University website.
George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, agrees. He said that bilingual children increasingly score higher on standardized tests through a strengthening of memory skills which aids in remembering lists or sequences. This ability also allows bilinguals to be more perceptive of their surroundings and to hold focus better.
Children who are a taught a second language will also have a healthier brain when they grow older, as the skill may prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. “On average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language,” Bialystok said. “On average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language,” Bialystok said.
These benefits are being tested in schools across the country, as immersion programs are becoming increasingly popular. Arrowhead Elementary is just one of 100 schools in Utah to participate in one of these programs, teaching children Mandarin Chinese. Other schools have programs in French, Spanish, Portuguese and German.
In a dual immersion program, students spend half of each day learning Chinese. Civics and reading are taught in English, with math and science taught fully in Mandarin Chinese to half of the students in kindergarten, first grade and second grade.
At first, parents weren’t too sure what to think, but after they saw the results – their children reading in a second language faster than they had learned to read in English – they became excited to see what would come next.
But which language should parents speak at home with their children? A columnist for Slate, Claire Bowens, says both.
“Speak to your daughter in whatever language you want. You won’t be doing her a disservice by speaking to her in both her languages. In fact, you may even be doing her a favor.”