Did you know that there are more bilingual people in the world than there are monolingual people? According to the Associated Press, 66 percent of the children in the world are raised to speak two languages — but only 6.3 percent of the children in the U.S. are. Bilingual education has become a hot-button political issue in the U.S. But politics aside, as Ana Flores of SpanglishBaby.com discussed with Angela, studies suggest that teaching our children to speak more than one language can provide surprising, long-lasting benefits. Let’s take a look at five:
1. Brawnier brains. Processing the sounds and words of different languages is hard work, but it pays off when it comes to brain power; children who learn a second language before the age of five have been shown to have denser gray matter in their brains than their monolingual peers. Though “dense” and “brain” have not traditionally been complementary terms, in this case, it’s a winning combination: Gray matter is the part of the brain that controls language and communication, and a higher density has been correlated with increased intellect.
2. Delayed dementia. According to a 2010 study of 211 Alzheimer’s patients, bilingual individuals were diagnosed with the disease 4.3 years later and exhibited symptoms of the disease 5.1 years later than those patients who spoke only one language. Just as crossword puzzles and learning a musical instrument have been shown to boost the brain’s “cognitive reserves,” so too does learning more than one language. While cognitive reserves won’t prevent dementia entirely, the study concluded that they may keep Alzheimer’s at bay by “compensat[ing] for the accumulation of amyloid and other brain pathologies.”
3. Superior self-regulation. Critics of bilingual education say that it creates confusion in young brains, but science shows that the discipline required to switch between two languages actually improves a child’s ability to focus on an individual task – and to control themselves. “Bilingual kids have better self-regulation, which will help them do better in school,” explains Temple University speech pathology professor Carol Scheffner Hammer. This advantage was demonstrated in a 2008 study conducted by the University of Washington, which concluded that increased self regulation – also known as “executive functioning” – provides bilingual children a “significant” advantage when it comes to “tasks that appear to call for managing conflicting attentional demands.” (Alas, science has yet to prove that bilingualism boosts a child’s focus when it comes to cleaning his room!)
4. Reading readiness. Just as a Dr. Seuss can increase a child’s awareness of and ability to manipulate sounds, so too does speaking a second language. Consider this: Sound manipulation, also called “phonological awareness” has been shown to be a good predictor of later reading ability. A 2010 study of bilingual children in Taiwan indicated that children who learned to read in their heritage language (in this case, Mandarin Chinese) demonstrated enhanced “phonological awareness and certain English reading skills.”
5. Passport to the world. It’s a big world out there, and English, the most common language in the U.S., is only third on the list of the most popular native languages world-wide – it ranks well behind Chinese, and just behind Spanish. “The world is really bilingual,” “To be bilingual will give you much more opportunities later.” Add to this the fact that the mind is best able to take in a new language between birth and age 7, and you have a very compelling argument for getting started. So let’s go – or, as the Italians would say, Andiamo!