The following is based on a study being done by Patricia Kuhl, a professor of early childhood learning at the University of Washington. The University is studying how infants’ brain activity in response to language relates to their later speaking ability. Their most recent studies investigate the brains of babies being raised in bilingual households.
Here are two of the most interesting findings:
1. Brains of bilingual babies remain open to language learning.
They found that the brains of the bilingual infants seemed to remain “open” to learning for a longer period of time compared to monolingual infants. Because they now know that the early brain wiring appears to be different for monolinguals and bilinguals within the first year of life, it emphasizes just how important it is to have high quality interactions and input from the start. In fact, they also found that the more the children heard in that language as infants, the larger their vocabulary was later.
2. Bilinguals show more flexible thinking.
There are specific cognitive advantages that bilinguals have over monolinguals. Bilinguals don’t necessarily have stronger overall IQ, memory, or academic aptitude. But, because they are more accustomed to switching between two languages, bilinguals also tend to be faster than monolinguals at switching between sets of rules in other situations.
On average, bilingual children (and adults) show some cognitive advantages compared to their monolingual peers. These skills translate into real-world situations that are related to self-control, problem solving and decision-making.
It appears that getting “practice” with switching through bilingualism seems to be good brain exercise for lots of other useful skills besides language. This is exciting, because it is more evidence showing how we can keep our brains sharp as we get older.
Based on these studies, here is advice for educators and families who are raising bilingual children:
Make sure infants and young children experience lots of the native language of their loved ones during everyday activities like playing, eating and reading.
Take time every day to share books, rhymes, word games and songs in your native language with children. Repeated fun with books strengthens language and vocabulary development. These skills will help prepare children to learn to read and to converse in any language.
Use lots of different words in talking with children.
Young children can learn multiple languages without delay, as long as they hear native speakers and have adequate experience with both languages.
When children start to "mix" both languages in the same sentence, they are not confused. Rather, this is normal, and means the child is developing strong language skills.