It goes without saying that anyone who wants to fit into our increasingly globalized world and wants to have better chances on the job market should be bilingual or even better: raised bilingually. For sure, bilingualism isn’t a guarantee to success, but it is the cherry on the cake that can potentially make a huge difference. So, when is the perfect time to start learning a second language? And what are the benefits of doing so?
“Science indicates that babies’ brains are the best learning machines ever created…”
For years, scientists and parents alike have touted the benefits of introducing babies to two languages: bilingual experience has been shown to improve cognitive abilities, especially problem solving. But bilingualism is not only an option for babies growing up in a bilingual household. A new study by I-LABS (Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences, Washington) researchers, which appears in the journal Mind, Brain, and Education, is among the first to investigate how babies can learn a second language outside of the home.
These researchers sought to answer a fundamental question: can babies be taught a second language if they don’t get foreign language exposure at home?
To answer this, the researchers developed a play-based, intensive English-language method and implemented it across four public infant-education centres in Madrid, Spain. The 280 babies aged 7 to 33.5 months were given one hour of English sessions a day for 18 weeks, while a control group received the Madrid schools’ standard bilingual program. Both groups of children have been tested in Spanish and English at the start and end of the 18 weeks.
Ferjan Ramirez, one of the research scientists, says the findings show that even babies from monolingual homes can develop bilingual abilities at this early age. Children’s native language (Spanish) continued to grow as they were learning English, and was not negatively affected by introducing a second language.
“Science indicates that babies’ brains are the best learning machines ever created, and that infants’ learning is time-sensitive. Their brains will never be better at learning a second language than they are between 0 and 3 years of age,” says co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS and a professor of speech and hearing sciences.
What are the benefits of learning a language before the age of 3?
“In the extreme case [of bilingualism] the speaker becomes so proficient as to be indistinguishable from the native speakers round him. … In the cases where this perfect foreign-language learning is not accompanied by loss of the native language, it results in bilingualism, native-like control of two languages” (Treichel:2004). When this happens before the age of 3 it is called ‘double first language acquisition’ or ‘simultaneous bilingualism’.
Fun fact: first language development in more than one language can start even before your child is born if exposed to foreign sounds!
The benefits of this type of bilingualism:
- ease in learning additional languages later on due to their effortless learning experience. Early on bilinguals are able to distinguish the object and the word, tend to compare languages spontaneously and have a better grasp of the structure of a new language due to their constant switching between two languages since their early childhood. It also increases language-independent thinking processes.
- increased empathy and openness towards other cultures as the dichotomy national/foreign isn’t that strong in bilingually raised children. Tolerance and interpersonal abilities are therefore increased.
- increased concentration and cognitive control as shown in the study of Jubin Abutalebi from the Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Milano: bilinguals are better at problem resolution that requires a high level of concentration, change of perspective and alternative thinking, in comparison to monolinguals. The reason for that is that the brain area involved in language acquisition is also involved in decision processes.
- being more adaptable to unknown and unexpected situations when reaching older age, due to the lifelong switching between languages. Thus, bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently.
- a delay in Alzheimer’s: as shown by the 2007 study of Bialystok, Craik and Freedman, bilingual patients were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease around 4 to 5 years later than monolingual patients. This could be due to the fact that the bilingual brain has enough resources to offset brain changes related with the disease.
- Bach, D., ‘This is why babies are so much better than you at learning languages’, World Economic Forum, 24 July 2017, [online: here], retrieved on:07/11/2018
- Goethe-Institut, Levecke, B. (translated), ‘The Brain Has Room for Many Languages’, May 2006, [online: here], retrieved on:07/11/2018
- Vogel, V., Bilingualismus Deutsch-Spanisch bei Kindern. Eine Fallstudie., Universität Wien, 2010, [online: here], retrieved on: 07/11/2018
- Concordia University, ‘Bilingualism could offset brain changes in alzheimer’s’, ScienceDaily, 6 February 2018, [online: here], retrieved on: 07/11/2018
- Klein, D., Zur Eignung Bilingualer als Übersetzer und Dolmetscher, Universität Regensburg, 2016, [online: here], retrieved on: 07/11/2018
Written by Djamila Klein – Terminology trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg). She holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and German Studies from the universities Clermont Auvergne and Regensburg, and a Master’s degree in Translation FR<>DE<EN from the University of Strasbourg.