Parenting & Child Development: The benefits of bilingualism
Special to the Sun
Scientific research has revealed more profound and fundamental benefits of bilingualism. The benefits extend far beyond the immediate convenience of being able to communicate in another language or bragging rights for tiger parents.
As it turns out, being bilingual actually makes you smarter. Collective evidence from a number of studies suggest that bilingualism improves the brain’s executive function.
Planning, problem solving and performing various other mentally demanding tasks are controlled through executive function that is command center in the brain. Many studies reveal that executive function in the brains of bilinguals are not only improved but remain stronger throughout one’s life.
According to experts, the best time for second language acquisition is from birth to 3 years when first language skills are being developed and the mind is still open and flexible.
The next best time for learning a second language is when kids are between 4 and 7 years old, because they can still process multiple languages on parallel paths. In other words, they build a second language system alongside the first and learn to speak both languages like a native.
The third best time for learning a second language is from about age 8 to puberty. After puberty, studies show, new languages are stored in a separate area of the brain, so children have to translate or go through their native language as a path to the new language making the process more difficult.
Our oldest daughter, Stella, acquired Spanish as a second language in a baptism by fire when we moved to Oaxaca, Mexico. We enrolled her in kindergarten at a school where the only director could speak English.
It was tough at first, but I watched her acquire Spanish beautifully in a matter of months. While I still struggled with sentence construction and grammar tenses, Chris, her dad, was more fluent, but his accent was terrible.
Stella could speak fluently without any trace of an American accent. Stella was able to keep up her Spanish skills when we returned to the US and enrolled her in the dual language immersion elementary school in Kings Beach.
Although our experience was unique and we were immersed completely while we lived in Mexico, it is possible to acquire a second language no matter what stage you are in your life or where you live.
Spanish may be the most practical second language choice. The United States is now the world’s second largest Spanish-speaking country after Mexico. The US Census Office estimates that the United States will have 138 million Spanish speakers by 2050, making it the biggest Spanish-speaking nation on Earth.
If Spanish is not your second language of choice and you prefer French, Mandarin or Farsi, do not get discouraged and try to stay with it.
If possible, give your children second language exposure and acquisition opportunities. Neuropathways in the brain shrink with age and conversely stay wider and open throughout the life of a bilingual person.
A study led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Bilingualism appears to influence the brain from infancy to old age.
If you are interested in working on second language skills, here are a few techniques that worked for our family:
• Turn to native speaking media such as television and radio via the internet to familiarize yourself with common idioms and culture.
• Have your kids watch cartoons and movies in a foreign language and turn on the subtitle feature that will appear in the same language as the film or television program. Refer to your DVD and Television manuals to set that up.
• Learn to sing some songs. Singing is a fun break from trying to speak in your new tongue and learning classics like “Happy Birthday,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or other classics may come in handy.
• Write a simple paragraph everyday about your day, yesterday or plans for tomorrow. This will routinely improve your grammar by repetition and help with speaking skills when trying to make casual conversation.
• To gain more confidence when speaking, I memorized an introduction that basically said, “Please forgive my terrible grammar, but I am trying to learn Spanish. If you could speak slowly and correct me, I appreciate the help.” This disarmed and sometimes endeared people and I felt less awkward trying to converse with native speakers.
Holly Galbo is the mother of two beautiful little girls and lives in Incline Village. She is the manager of the KidZone Museum in Truckee. For information, visit kidzonemuseum.org or call 530-587- 5437.