Merely a couple decades ago cross-culturalism was feared for its (purportedly) negative effects for children. It was said that growing up in a multilingual society is confusing for a child who doesn’t have proper language and cognitive skills. That such children will never learn any language properly and will grow up somehow mentally disadvantaged. Nonsense! The media was overwhelmed with multiple scientific evidences that state quite the opposite.
Multicultural environment should is advised for those who want their children to grow up with a well-rounded mental training, because bilingualism does train the brain!
Bilingual settings and executive functions
Sara, a child whose parents are an Irish and an Argentinian, is raised in a society that speaks only Spanish, while her parents speak both Spanish and English at home. She was also taught a little bit of Irish Gaelic. Once, Sara participated in a test of cognitive performance and was evaluated to have a truly decent executive functions, such as attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making, responsiveness to feedback, task switching and mental flexibility in general. Better than those who know only one language. “All this due to prolonged exposure to multilingual environment”, it was said.
Since she is switching from English to Spanish and back all the time, Sara is more perceptive to the situation she is in. Language switching requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that drivers monitor their surroundings while on the road. Similarly, choosing the right word while blocking the same one from another language trains us to suppress irrelevant information and forces the brain to solve a problem. So it’s an exercise to the brain much like a weight to a muscle!
These mental skills are essential for children in school and in the world generally. Flexible mind makes sense from the new information easier. It can make connections and understand the big picture – the skills that are taught and nurtured in school.
The working memory of bilinguals
One of executive functions is working memory. It is closely related to attention control and focus, something that parents and teachers struggle to bring out in their offspring or pupils. Not surprisingly, knowing two languages improves working memory too!
To give an example of scientific evidence, a study at a few universities from Spain and Canada in 2013 revealed substantial information on this topic. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology concluded that bilingual children have better working memory, which holds, processes and updates transitory information. It affects all the tasks that requires keeping things in mind for a short time, from mental calculation to reading and understanding a text from a beginning to an end.
Even though working memory forms in the first years of human’s life, it can be trained and improved. The same goes with many other executive functions. The mind is really flexible, so children who are exposed to a few languages since the early youth experience the benefits of such flexibility most efficiently! Differences between monolingual and bilingual children have been confirmed by studies that tested participants as young as 6-year-olds. And the differences have been significant even at such an age.
A peek into bilingual brain
There are physical differences between monolingual and bilingual brain as well. Simultaneous usage of multiple languages restructures the brain by increasing the process of myelination. It means the production of myelin, a substance among the nerve cells that is responsible for faster impulse propagation in the brain. In short, this means a faster processing of information and fewer losses of such activity.
So even very young children who hear more than one language in their environment will not only grow up with betterexecutive functions and memory, but will also sense and comprehend various information faster than those who can only speak one language.
If you want to know more about the effects multilingualism has on the brain, we have more on this topic.
Cross-cultural environment is widespread. A married couple of a Spaniard and a Chinese doesn’t surprise anyone anymore. And it shouldn’t! Freedom to experience any and all cultures and languages not only allows us to understand others, but makes our minds sharper. If you thought that cross-cultural family is too difficult to be a part of, you were only partially right. While raising a bilingual child might not be easy, the effort is not meaningless. The interplay of cultures and languages in society keeps it brilliant and mentally healthy!