By Hanne S. Finstad, Scientist Factory.
Learning two languages at home benefits brain development. Bilingual brains perform better than monolingual brains when researchers measure their cognitive abilities.
Using two languages is very intense for the brain. It constantly has to pick which language to use. Brain scans reveal that the brain works with both languages simultaneously, even when a bilingual child is in an environment where only one language is spoken.
The brain areas we use when we speak and listen are more advanced in bilinguals than those who only speak one language. Maybe that is why bilinguals are better protected against Alzheimer’s later in life?
The brain structures that give us advanced cognitive abilities, such as impulse control and focus, get good training from working with two languages. The same is true of memory and the ability to shift our attention. The benefits are the greatest if we learn the second language before the age of five. In these formative years, the brain network is still forming and continually influenced by what we experience, making it possible to establish a network for two languages.
Researchers haven’t found any adverse effects of learning two languages from a young age. Bilingual babies start saying their first word at the same time as other babies. Babies discover patterns in languages very quickly when they hear people speak. Therefore, it is beneficial to talk to children a lot, right from the moment they are born. This applies to everyday adult language and exaggerated baby language.
What, then, is the best method of teaching two languages? Spanish scientists wanted to find out. They recruited 250 children from seven months to three years old for an experiment that lasted for 18 weeks. The children were divided into two groups. Group one participated in a curriculum already established in Madrid. The children had two hours of English lessons per week with a Spanish-speaking teacher who knew English. They worked with songs, rhymes, books, and English phrases.
Group two learned English with methods that the researchers suspected would be more efficient. The children got one hour of English per day, and the curriculum was based on playing. The lessons were also very social. The children were encouraged to speak English even though they only knew how to babble. and the teachers spoke often and directly to the children with slow and exaggerated intonation.
The results yielded no doubt. Both groups of children learned English while they also developed their understanding of Spanish. The effects were still there 18 weeks later, after the conclusion of the study. Group two, where the children had learned English every day, performed much better than group one.
The successful method included:
- The language was taught through interpersonal, direct speech and face-to-face contact
- The children practiced the language every day
- They were encouraged to speak
- All teaching was based in playing
- They heard different people speak English
- The teachers were skillful English-users
- Reshaping the Mind: The Benefits og Bilingualism. E Bialystock, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol 65, p 229-235, 2011
- Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease. FIM Crai et al, Neurology, vol 75, p 1726-1729, 2010
- Bilingual Baby: Foreign Language Intervention in Madrid`s Infant Education Centers. Mind, Brain and Education, vol 11, s 133-143, 2017