Raising Bilingual Kids — Does foreign language learning promote child development?

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Recently, as I was dropping my son off at daycare, one of his teachers welcomed him with an enthusiastic “Buongiorno!” to which he replied, “Buongiorno, Pia!” with perfect Italian pronunciation. I joined in as they went back and forth with a few greetings, but there was no doubt that he was able to pull off a much more authentic accent than I could.

At two years old, my son (like all kids his age) is absorbing language at a breakneck pace. Through preschool, children’s brains are malleable enough to take on whatever language surrounds them. They are primed to seek out and code the sounds they hear from family, nannies, and friends.

As a result, many parents attempt to raise their children bi- (or even tri-) lingually, either by speaking a different language at home or having a foreign language spoken by a care provider. It used to be, however, that parents were told not to expose children in to two languages, thinking that it might confuse or slow down their verbal skills.

These days most experts agree that the developing mind can easily handle the double input. And research is beginning to show that, in addition to the linguistic benefits, learning multiple languages might provide valuable mental exercise for kids that could have positive long-term effects.

Two Languages Challenge the Brain – in a Good Way

In fact, there’s reason to think that learning two languages could increase certain critical brain functions. Studies have shown that kids who grow up with two languages are better at certain tests of “executive function” – a crucial skill that allows us to pay attention, focus, plan, and decide. Executive function is one of our most advanced and complex human abilities. It takes a long time to fully crystallize (it’s still a work in progress into our early 20′s, which is why even college grads don’t always seem to have the best judgment).

Babies Are “Citizens of the World”

For the first six months of life, most babies are experts at distinguishing sounds – a Japanese baby can tell the difference between “r” and “l” – a feat which will become much harder as she grows into a Japanese adult. And English-speaking babies can discriminate between certain German or Swedish vowels, or the Spanish “b” and “p,” where English-speaking adults struggle.

Amazingly, after the first year of life, this finely tuned ability goes away as children start to specialize in their local language only. But even though the optimal window for becoming bilingual (with the ability to sound like a native in both languages) coincides with preschool, the flexibility to learn new words continues throughout childhood.

The preschool years are when we see our children’s budding capacities for executive control (waiting their turn, saying “I don’t like that” instead of smacking someone, persisting in trying to solve a difficult puzzle) – and it’s also when vocabulary skills skyrocket. Scientists think that mastering two languages challenges the brain to selectively pay attention to and produce one set of words, while suppressing the other set. The process is similar to impulse control – in order to communicate, you need to put a lid on one language, or else your speech comes out as a jumbled mess.

It’s unclear exactly how the edge in executive functions could impact a bilingual kids’ lifelong learning. But certainly these skills are getting props from psychologists as being equally important to qualities like IQ when it comes to getting ahead in life. Executive function is arguably one of the most important set of skills we learn – to delay gratification, make a plan, and focus on the task at hand. And as the recent book, NurtureShock, highlighted, preschool and kindergarten programs that teach solid executive functioning are successful at propelling children forward in their learning.

No Longer Any Concerns

So it’s really not a question any more of the possible drawbacks of a bilingual home. In fact, when you consider the impressive feat of a monolingual baby – going from zero words to full conversations within three years – the fact that other children can carry two times the load, coming out doubly fluent, in more or less the same time frame is stunning. It’s also testament to how expert their little brains are for soaking up languages.

If anything, the extra work being asked of the bilingual child might be a valuable exercise. A study released a few years ago actually found that speaking two languages delays the average onset age of dementia by four years, leading researchers to attempt to understand how it sharpens and protects our thinking.

Don’t Worry – There Are Other Ways

But before you consider letting your English-speaking nanny go or ordering French DVDs and projecting them into your pregnant belly, remember that kids learn executive control in many different ways – scientists and educators are still trying to understand the mechanics. The good news is that they do learn, and parents have a lot to do with this process. Stay tuned next week for tips and strategies for giving your child’s tiny mind a boost in this vital skill.

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