Raising A Bilingual Child: Advantages And Disadvantages For Their Brain

Up to four months of age, children’s brains are capable of recording every conceivable sound. Raising A Bilingual Child: Advantages And Disadvantages For Their Brain.

Raising A Bilingual Child Advantages And Disadvantages For Their Brain
Girls on Desk Writing.

This is the moment when babies are potentially most receptive to being bilingual. What are the advantages and disadvantages of children learning a second language from an early age?

With what it costs us adults to learn a new language … and the ease with which the youngest develop in a second language.

There is still much to discover about language, but fortunately neuroscience is doing its homework and we can already know a little more about how the brain works in bilingual children, the benefits of speaking two languages and the cost that this entails in other skills.

But what is bilingual?

Albert Costa, psychologist and research professor at the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona, as well as author of The Bilingual Brain (Ed. Debate), explains that the definition of bilingualism is complex, but simplifying it to the maximum, we could say that “we call bilinguals those who use two languages to communicate, to different degrees, with different competences (highly competent, lullabies, etc.)”.

When is it time to start?

Whatever the degree of bilingualism, there is no doubt that children have an enormous capacity to learn languages, so to do so from a young age is, it seems, the formula.

But when exactly is the moment? When are they born? When do they start school at the age of three? At six, when they read and their native vocabulary is enriched? The researcher’s answer is simple, but emphatic: “the sooner, the better”. But this goes beyond choosing a bilingual school or an academy.

Learning sounds and words

Raising A Bilingual Child Advantages And Disadvantages For Their Brain
Two Girls Doing School Works.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there are two levels of language learning: vocabulary and sounds (or phonemes).

As for the first, the acquisition of vocabulary, Costa points out that “the ability to learn words is open for life.

In fact, we are constantly learning new words. Since there is no age limit for this, whether it is soon or late has no major relevance.

However, “age does play an important role in learning sounds,” adds the teacher.

If we put together all the languages of the world, we will find more than 800 different sounds, of which each language uses about 40 on average.

Good models from the cradle

Children born and raised in a two-language environment are “specialized” in both languages.

If parents speak different native languages and address their child in their languages, the child can recognize the sounds of each language, which will then serve to pronounce them naturally, as if he were a native speaker of both.

But this in no way means that those who have not learned a foreign language since birth cannot learn it later.

If a child starts at the age of 10, it may cost him a little more (just a little), but he will surely be able to acquire the new language perfectly as long as he remains in active contact with it.

Cartoons in another language are not enough

In the case of bilingual cribs, they are not only exposed to sounds from early childhood.

This exposure is accompanied by an emotional component and personal communication. And this is key because auditory exposure alone is not enough.

From a study led by Patricia K. Kuhl, from the University of Washington, says that “interaction with other people is essential for learning phonemes and words”.

Costa confirms this in his book: “mere passive exposure to a language is not very effective”. So bad news for those who believe “putting children in front of cartoons in another language so that they get it”; this doesn’t seem to do much good.

It doesn’t seem to work either to put them to sleep with an another language recording.

Benefits of Bilingualism

Raising A Bilingual Child Advantages And Disadvantages For Their Brain
Boy Reading.
  • The most obvious thing is that it allows children to talk to people from different countries, expanding their social, cultural, literary world…
  • It increases the ability to separate two different codes (languages) and to focus on one, without interference from the other. This is called attentional control, which leads to keeping what is relevant and discarding what is irrelevant. Bilingual children are accustomed to juggling in order to decide between one language and another, which entails a good brain exercise for other life decisions and also to jump from one activity to another without problem.
  • It favors executive control, namely cognitive processes such as attention, mental flexibility, memory, planning…).
  • It is known that a healthier brain is one that exercises more: bilingualism seems like good training to keep the brain in shape due to the extra effort it must make by focusing only on one language each time it speaks, reads, listens.
  • Albert Costa also banishes a habitual apprehension: “those who acquire two languages from the cradle or are exposed to them from a very young age, are no longer confused, but grow up very well and have the advantage of knowing two languages”.

The drawbacks of carrying two languages in the brain

Raising A Bilingual Child Advantages And Disadvantages For Their Brain
Girl Writing on Brown Wooden Table.
  • There are studies that show that bilingual vocabulary is more limited. “If you put together the number of words, it is greater in the bilingual child; but if you measure it separately, the truth is that it seems that its vocabulary in mother tongue is smaller than one monolingual, exposed to more than 18 hours a day to the same language. These differences narrow rapidly over time because the acquisition of vocabulary will depend on the environment.
  • The bilingual brain is going to have to work harder, so it will entail brain processes that require more effort than speaking just one language, so more energy is lost in “activating” one language and “deactivating” the other.
  • There are also studies that conclude that bilingualism slows down the denomination of things with words and that the effect of “having the word at the tip of the tongue” happens more often. Indeed, there is a slower rate of reaction in the recovery of words, because the brain has to discern between two words, in one language or another. A bilingual child of Spanish and English, for example, intends to say cat, the word cat is also activated in his brain.

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