There are cognitive benefits to being a bilingual kid that pay off in adulthood

Signage that’s only kind of right—probably not written by a bilingual.
Signage that’s only kind of right—probably not written by a bilingual.
Image: Reuters/Claro Cortes
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As many bilingual kids will attest, it can be a pain to to speak one language at home while studying and speaking another at school. For their parents, it’s tough enough to get kids to do homework, forget about having to also struggle with two tongues. Yet there are cognitive benefits to bilingualism, brainy payoffs for families able to fight the good fight.

Early bilingualism helps students learn new languages later, according to linguists and neuroscientists reporting on Oct. 2 in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. ”There has been a lot of debate about the value of early bilingual language education,” study co-author, Sarah Grey of the Department of Modern Languages and Literature in Fordham University in New York, said in a statement. “Now…we have novel brain-based data that points towards a distinct language-learning benefit for people who grow up bilingual.”

The study found that the bilingual brain seems less taxed by linguistic acquisition than the monolingual brain. The research team, led by neuroscientist Michael Ullman of Georgetown University, discovered  bilinguals were quicker to process a new language naturally at low levels of proficiency. They also seemed to need to pay less attention than monolinguals when using a new tongue at higher levels of proficiency.

“The difference is readily seen in language learners’ brain patterns. When learning a new language, bilinguals rely more than monolinguals on the brain processes that people naturally use for their native language,” Ullman said.

The study was based on a small group of college students—13 bilinguals and 17 monolinguals. Still, it’s the first of its kind, examining the cognitive activity of the two groups as they simultaneously acquire a new language over time.

Researchers wanted to see if the brain processes of bilinguals and monolinguals visibly differed as they acquired a tongue, so they hooked them up to electrocardiographs at various points in their instruction in a fake language called Brocanto2. The students were all instructed identically. Yet they showed different cognitive responses when processing the new tongue.

Bilinguals seemed to have a better time with Brocanto2, which is based on romance tongues, so knowing Mandarin, like the bilingual study participants, wasn’t a particular advantage here. Nonetheless, the brains of bilinguals processed Brocanto2 more quickly as a natural language at early stages of learning, according to ECGs of their cognitive activity. Those who spoke both Mandarin and English before they were 6 years old, and were continually exposed to both languages on a weekly basis, assimilated the invented third tongue rapidly while monolinguals did not.

At higher levels of proficiency, the research team found, both monolinguals and bilinguals processed Brocanto2 naturally, like they would a familiar tongue. Still, monolinguals needed to use more brain power, basically straining more or paying more attention for the same result as bilinguals.

The new study proves scientifically what bilinguals already knew intuitively. That extra linguistic effort at an early age eventually does pay off. Bonne chance!