Accentuate the positive

After decades of being judged to be a hindrance to learning, bilingualism has now been found to boost literacy and brain power, writes Annie Kelly

There are around 6,500 to 7,000 languages spoken across the world today. In every city in every country, people communicate with one another using millions of different words and sounds. Link languages, such as Arabic, Bengali, English and Spanish, are spoken in boardrooms, churches, playgrounds and coffee shops, uniting those from different continents living and working thousands of miles away from home. 

In a world where communication has never been faster or valued more highly, the idea of speaking just one language is fast becoming outdated. There are now more bilingual speakers in the world than monolinguals and more children than ever are spending some or all of their education in a second language. Yet, accordingto linguistic researchers, myths around the dangers of bringing your children up in a multilingual environment persist.

“Traditionally there has been this idea that bilingualism is bad for children, it’s too much for them, it causes problems and delays,” says Krista Byers-Heinlein, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Concordia University in Montreal. “This idea has been out there for a long time and has only really started to be challenged in the last decade. Too many parents still believe they are doing their child a disservice by bringing them up in a multilingual environment, when in fact the absolute opposite is true.”

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the fear of multiple languages causing confusion or disrupting education saw children at state schools across Texas forbidden from speaking anything but English, enforced as a pedagogical measure to ensure all students acquired the correct level of mastery of the English language. 

But in 1973 the state reversed this policy, passing a Bilingual Education and Training Act, which required all schools to provide a bilingual education to students. Yet old attitudes still apparently prevail. Only last year a headteacher in the same state lost her job after telling pupils at her middle school that they could not speak Spanish on school grounds. 

Skott Freedman Jones, Assistant Professor at the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at Ithaca College in New York, believes that in countries strongly defined by one language, negative attitudes towards bilingualism run deeper than concerns about possible developmental delays.

“I think a lot of the bad rap that bilingualism has got in the past is actually connected to our judgements and prejudices,” he says. “At this very moment, it is estimated that one-fifth of children aged five and over in the United States speak a language other than English at home, yet for decades immigrant families were encouraged to only speak English with their children for fear of confusing them or putting them at a disadvantage. I think in a country like the US where English is the overwhelmingly dominant and ‘favoured’ language, it speaks more about how English is valued and the language of migrant workers isn’t viewed as advantageous to the child.”

Over the past few decades academics such as Freedman have been challenging the perception that a multilingual environment hinders educational progress and creates confusion. For the first time the science of bilingualism and how we learn language is being tested and measured. The work of linguists and academics in universities across the world is starting to debunk the myths that bilingualism interferes with language development. Indeed, in multiple studies researchers have found no evidence that a bilingual upbringing is any different from a monolingual one when it comes to children hitting key literacy and development targets.

“Children can learn two languages as easily as learning one,” says Freedman. “There is research being done now that indicates that children learning multiple languages do differentiate between the two; they establish different language systems from the beginning – so this is one code that I know and this is another. They’re not translating or confusing the two because they are learning two languages simultaneously and developing a two-track approach.” 

Like other linguists who are helping form a new understanding of the science behind how we learn languages, Freedman is also a flag-bearer for the idea that children’s cognitive and emotional development is enhanced rather than threatened by exposure to a multilingual environment. “Cognitively speaking, bilingual adults can do things like multitask more efficiently because they have become more used to processing different symbols at a deep cellular level,” he says. Freedman’s views are backed by other studies from around the world. In another study from Concordia University, researchers found that toddlers who learn a second language from infancy have a developmental edge over their monolingual peers. 

“Exposing toddlers to a second language early in their development provides a bilingual advantage that enhances attention control,” says Diane Poulin-Dubois, a psychology professor at Concordia University. “By 24 months, we found bilingual children had already acquired a vocabulary in each of their two languages and gained some experience in switching between [the two]. We found the cognitive benefits of bilingualism come much earlier than reported in previous studies.”

Another study conducted in 2013 by the University of Granada and York University in Toronto found that bilingual children also develop a better working memory – the part of your brain that holds, processes and updates information over a short period of time. The working memory is crucial in processes such as mental calculation or reading comprehension. Using a study sample of children aged five to seven years old, the researchers found that bilingual children outperformed monolingual children in all working-memory exercises. The more complex the tasks, the better the bilingual children performed. 

All this research contributes to a growing body of evidence that provides fuel to the argument that children who speak more than one language have the edge over their monolingual playmates in terms of skills such as communication, cognition and social interaction.

Bilingual children are able to instinctively ‘notice’ how language works, according to tests done by academics at Cambridge University, which showed that bilingual children consistently outperformed other children in tasks linked to language awareness, such as whether a sentence was grammatically well-formed or truthful. 

“The mental gymnastics needed to constantly manage two or more linguistic systems increases cognitive flexibility and makes learning easier,” says Dora Alexopoulou, Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, and co-founder of the Cambridge Bilingualism Network. 

With minds like absorbent sponges, children soak up language in different ways than adults, who often need props such as flash cards, tapes or conversation classes to master a new language. Yet the same researchers warn that bilingualism cannot be taken for granted. 

“I think as awareness grows the biggest challenge is not getting people exposed to different languages, it is getting the message through that these languages need to be fed and nurtured,” says Alexopoulou. “It is one thing to speak to your children in your mother tongue when you’re at home but as children grow up and become more socialised it becomes much harder to keep up that rich input of the second or third language and make sure it doesn’t stall.” 

Alexopoulou says that many children who can speak a language don’t automatically become literate in it. “When children begin to read and write in one language, the other language can start to erode,” she explains. “For every year of schooling, children learn up to 3,000 words. It’s very hard if not impossible for parents to match this in the home. To maintain bilingualism you have to work at it and make sure there is an academic foundation or effort put in as well.”