Why parents should raise their children to be bilingual

Bilingual children use as many words as monolingual children when telling a story, a study has found.
Bilingual children use as many words as monolingual children when telling a story, a study has found.

If you’re raising your kids to be bilingual so that they may maintain their heritage, it might be gratifying to know that you’re doing more than that for them.

According to a recent study by the University of Alberta, it can also open doors to being creative storytellers. The research was published in the journal Language, Cognition and Neuroscience.

The researchers found that bilingual children use as many words as monolingual children when telling a story.

“We found that the number of words that bilingual children use in their stories is highly correlated with their cognitive flexibility – the ability to switch between thinking about different concepts,” said Elena Nicoladis, lead author and professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Science. 

Bilingual since birth

Researchers examined a group of French-English bilingual children who were taught two languages since birth, rather than learning a second language later in life. A new, highly sensitive measure for examining cognitive flexibility was used, allowing researchers to examine participants’ ability to switch between games with different rules, while maintaining accuracy and reaction time.

It was found that bilingual children used just as many words to tell a story in English as monolingual children, and that they used just as many words in French as they did in English.

A change in understanding benefits of multiple languages

Although previous research has shown that bilingual children score lower than monolingual children on traditional vocabulary tests, the researchers say that the recent results are changing our understanding of the link between multiple languages and cognition in children.

“The past research is not surprising. Learning a word is related to how much time you spend in each language,” said Nicholadis. 

For bilingual children, time is split between languages, Nicholadis explained, which leads to the conclusion that they tend to have lower vocabularies in each of their languages. However, this research shows quite the opposite: that as a function of storytelling, bilingual children are equally strong as monolingual children.

The brain benefits from learning a second language

A 2014 study carried out by an international team of researchers based in Singapore looked at the cognitive abilities of 114 six-month-old babies. They found significant cognitive advantages of exposure to two languages, and that these advantages reveal themselves early on – irrespective of the languages spoken.

Research from 2016 by the University of Washington found that brains of babies (from the age of 11 months) exposed to two languages develop better, boosts their memory and solving skills. 

The study involved an experiment which found the area of the brain responsible for what is known as "executive function" to be more developed among babies in a bilingual home, than one with just one language.

Another 2017 study, reported by Health24, found that bilingual children have an easier time learning additional languages later in life than those who speak only one language, researchers report.

So if you were uncertain about whether to raise your child speaking more than one language, it should give you peace of mind to know that encouraging a bilingual education is actually a safe bet.

Image: iStock

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