Bilingual kids are better at learning new languages

Bilingual children have more active brains.
Bilingual children have more active brains.

Bilingual children have an easier time learning additional languages later in life than those who speak only one language, researchers report.

This research might be especially applicable to a multilingual society such as South Africa, where we have 11 official languages, and where sign language is recognised as a 12th official language. 

What the study entailed

In a new, small study, researchers included 13 college students who learned English and Mandarin at a young age, and 16 college students who spoke only English.

The bilingual students were better able to learn a new language over the course of a week than the monolingual students, the investigators found. Brain scans revealed significant differences between the two groups in patterns of certain types of brain waves.

The study was published in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.

Different brain patterns

"The difference is readily seen in language learners' brain patterns," said senior researcher Michael Ullman. He is a professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

"When learning a new language, bilinguals rely more than monolinguals on the brain processes that people naturally use for their native language," Ullman explained in a university news release.

And, lead study author Sarah Grey noted, "We also find that bilinguals appear to learn the new language more quickly than monolinguals." Grey is an assistant professor of Spanish and linguistics, and director of the language programme at Fordham University in New York City.

"There has been a lot of debate about the value of early bilingual language education," Grey said in the news release. "Now, with this small study, we have novel brain-based data that points towards a distinct language-learning benefit for people who grow up bilingual."

It appears that babies are natural linguists, and a previous Health24 article reports that kids as young as seven months can tell one language from another and begin to learn them even if they have very different rules of grammar.

Study focused on Mandarin-English speakers

The researchers studied Mandarin-English speakers because both languages differ structurally from the new language used in the study. The language was an artificial version of a Romance language, Brocanto2, that the students learned to both speak and understand. Use of an artificial language allowed the researchers to control the students' exposure to it, the study authors noted.

Image credit: iStock

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