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Building better brains with bilingualism

Multicultural family
Credit: iStock.com/digitalskillet

Watching small children slip effortlessly between English and Vietnamese, Hindi or Mandarin is always a marvel. It’s difficult not to envy the way they can swap seamlessly between languages within the same sentence or as they address different people in the same conversation.

As adults, we fail to wrap our tongue around unfamiliar nasal vowel sounds, guttural r sounds or the nuances of tonal languages such as Cantonese, to which children fluidly adapt.

In her popular Ted Talk about the linguistic genius of babies Dr Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences in Seattle, displays a disheartening slide for adults about the critical period for acquisition of new language.

Until the age of seven children are geniuses at acquiring a second language and from there the graph drops dramatically, bottoming out at age 17. In her words “after puberty we fall off the map”.

Those of us sitting at home with our foreign language iPad apps shouldn’t be tempted to quit, but what it should point out is the incredible opportunity the early years present for childhood adoption of a second language.

Growing up in bilingual households

With 21% of Australians speaking a language other than English at home (2016 Census data) the opportunity and benefits of children being raised in bilingual households has come under the spotlight.

Studies are spruiking a raft of cognitive benefits including better concentration and the construction of thought processes. And while it had been believed that learning a second language may result in language developmental delays, further studies are indicating this is not the case.

Dr Marina Kalashnikova, head of the MARCS Babylab points out that children provide researchers with a unique test case for language understanding.

“Babies can distinguish their native language from other languages at just one month old. By 10 months of age they already know the sounds of their language and can understand multiple words. By 18 months of age they can say over 50 words,” she says.

Children come into the world with no linguistic knowledge, but quickly become experts in their native language or languages in their first year of life in a manner that appears to be effortless.

Each child’s experience with language differs dramatically, with many children in Australia and around the world growing up learning more than one language.

“These children face the challenging task of learning to distinguish between their two languages and learning the sounds and words in those two languages,” Dr Kalashnikova says.

“It is often believed that growing up bilingual may lead to delays in language development, but our research demonstrates that bilingual children follow different pathways in the task of learning language, which are not delayed compared to their monolingual peers.”

A 2017 study1 of Spanish-English bilingual children by researchers at Florida Atlantic University published in the journal Developmental Science finds that when children learn two languages from birth each language proceeds on its own independent course, at a rate that reflects the quality of the children’s exposure to each language. 

“One well established fact about monolingual development is that the size of children’s vocabularies and the grammatical complexity of their speech are strongly related. It turns out that this is true for each language in bilingual children,” says Erika Hoff, Ph.D., lead author of the study, a psychology professor in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and director of the Language Development Lab. “But vocabulary and grammar in one language are not related to vocabulary or grammar in the other language.”

“There is something about differences among the children and the quality of English they hear that make some children acquire vocabulary and grammar more rapidly in English and other children develop more slowly,” she says.

“I think the key takeaway from our study is that it’s not the quantity of what the children are hearing; it’s the quality of their language exposure that matters. They need to experience a rich environment.”

Australia’s culturally diverse population indicates the top six languages spoken at home include Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Italian and Greek. While the data does not delve into the languages of children in the birth to five age range, this information would be valuable for educators developing programs from preschool to tertiary levels.

Bilinguals outperform monolinguals in word learning tasks

A study2 conducted by researchers for the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development found that bilinguals outperform single language speakers in understanding language and learning new words.

Dr Karen Mulak, who conducted the study in partnership with the National University of Singapore, says most word learning occurred subconsciously.

“When thinking of how we learn words, we might think of consulting a dictionary or having someone explain the meaning directly, but in the real-world, many words are learned indirectly,” she says.

“When we hear a word we don’t know, our mind subconsciously tracks what the possible meaning might be based on our surroundings or the context.

“After a few encounters with the new word, the brain narrows down what the likely meaning is, and in turn we’ve learned a new word. In research, this is called cross-situational word learning.”

The MARCS study compared the performance of single language speakers (monolinguals) and bilinguals in a word learning assessment.
The study was the first to demonstrate that bilinguals can learn new words in an indirect or implicit way, and that they are also better at it than single language speakers.

Dr Mulak says past research found a bilingual advantage, but her findings were the first to demonstrate that bilinguals outperformed monolinguals in a number of word learning tasks.

She says bilingualism was often associated with greater performance on tests of attention, focus and memory and that these factors might explain the bilingual advantage over single language speakers.

“This supports the theory that bilingualism fosters a wide range of cognitive advantages that may benefit implicit word learning and fits with other research that suggests learning more than one language in childhood may benefit overall language development, and may also be associated with other benefits in problem solving and handling complex tasks.”

Bilingual children have a perceptual advantage

Another advantage in findings published in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition suggests bilingual children are better at perceiving information about who is talking, including recognising voices. 

The study3  by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development found bilingual children have a perceptual advantage when processing information about a speaker’s voice.

“This advantage exists in the social aspect of speech perception, where the focus is not on processing the linguistic information, but instead on processing information about who is talking. Speech simultaneously carries information about what is being said and who is saying it," says

Susannah Levi, Assistant Professor of Communicative Sciences and disorders at NYU Steinhardt and the study's author.

"While we need more research to explain why bilingual children are better and faster at learning different voices, our study provides yet another example of the benefits of speaking and understanding multiple languages.”

Tip for supporting bilingual children

  • Read and tell stories in your native language, and encourage your child to join in.
  • Play games in your native language.
  • Sing songs, dance and play music in your language.
  • Look for activity centres or bilingual programs that support your child’s use of your native language.
  • Organise playtime with other children who speak the same minority language.
  • Borrow language CDs, DVDs, picture books and magazines from your local library.
  • Look out for cultural activities that you and your child can do together to tap into your family’s cultural heritage and identity.

1   Hoff E, Quinn JM, and Giguere D. What explains the correlation between growth in vocabulary and grammar? New evidence from latent change score analyses of simultaneous bilingual development. Dev Sci. 2017;00:e12536.

 2 Escudero P, Mulak KE, Fu CSL and Singh L (2016) More Limitations to Monolingualism: Bilinguals Outperform Monolinguals in Implicit Word Learning. Front. Psychol. 7:1218. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01218

LEVI, S. (2017). Another bilingual advantage? Perception of talker-voice information. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 1-14. doi:10.1017/S1366728917000153