Guide to raising bilingual kids

Advantages of bilingualism

We all know the advantages of knowing a foreign language (specifically English) such as better career prospects, ability to travel without a necessity to rely on tour companies and active gesticulation, reading great classic literature the way it was intended and many more. Nevertheless it’s all common sense. Scientific research and statistics discovered many new subtle benefits and confirmed the old ones:

1. Improved mental flexibility

In one study, researchers taught 7-month old babies growing up in monolingual or bilingual homes that when they heard a tinkling sound, a puppet appeared on one side of a screen. Halfway through the study, the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of the screen. In order to get a reward (just enjoy watching the puppet) the infants had to adjust the rule they’d learned; only the bilingual babies were able to successfully learn the new rule. So even in a very early age, bilingual kids have more mind plasticity. [Link #1]

2. Improved concentration, self-control, attention control and decision making skills

Those who speak two languages have better critical thinking and decision making skills. The bilinguals outperformed the monolinguals on “conflict tasks,” or tasks that required resolving multiple simultaneous attention demands. Researchers found that early bilinguals (those who learned both languages before the age of 3) had the fastest reaction time in attention control tests. Attention control refers to an individual’s capacity to choose what they pay attention to and what they ignore. In lay terms attention control can be described as an individual’s ability to concentrate. [Link #2]

Another research showed that 11 months old bilingual kids’ brains were more developed in the areas, responsible for the executive functions. More developed here stands for greater concentration of neural connections and their activeness. [Link #3]

And the third experiment, where teens had to complete a series of intellectual tasks, both bilinguals and monolinguals performed equally well, until they were given the most difficult tasks, that required to avoid distractions. In these most difficult tasks bilinguals reacted significantly faster. The research states that bilinguals develop executive control earlier and maintain their ability to control those functions longer than monolinguals. Such processes are very common in everyday cognitive life. [Link #4]

3. Better empathy and socialization skills

Multilingual individuals get higher average scores on tests for certain personality traits such as cultural empathy, open-mindedness and social initiative. Constant switching between languages (code-switching) and communication with monolingual people make them aware of other people’s qualities and abilities since early age, and leads to a deeper understanding of culture too.

This was also proved by Sally-Anne test in both kids and adults, where adult bilinguals showed better empathy and awareness of other people, while bilingual kids started to be able to complete the task earlier than monolinguals. You can easily understand the task yourself:

In the test process, after introducing two dolls, the child is asked the control question of recalling their names. A short skit is then enacted; Sally takes a marble and hides it in her basket. She then “leaves” the room and goes for a walk. While she is away, Anne takes the marble out of Sally’s basket and puts it in her own box. Sally is then reintroduced and the child is asked the key question: “Where will Sally look for her marble?” Usually, kids start realizing that Sally doesn’t know about the changed location of the marble at the age of four. Bilinguals are a year ahead of them in it. [Link #5]

4. The higher chance to achieve deep, fluent, accent-free speech

The earlier the language is learnt, the deeper and broader is the understanding of the language. The ability to learn a foreign language declines with age, with a very little chance to acquire native-like fluent and accent-free speech after the age of three.

The major threshold here is 8-10 months, as in the research of Japanese and American babies. It is the exact age when babies stop distinguishing between R and L in English, since in Japanese there is only one sound for both L and R. [Link #6]

At this age baby learns the subtlest pronunciation nuances of any language. Therefore, all other languages, learnt later, are acquired through a sound system of mother tongue, thus, resulting in speaking with an accent.

5. Better financial productivity

This one seems to be obvious, but just to illustrate I want to give the example of Canada, which ranks among the highest in quality of life, economic freedom, and education. Yet, a bilingual employee can earn up to 40% higher salary, then his/her monolingual counterparts. [Link #7] And it is a country with two official languages. In less multilingual countries the advantage can be even higher!

6. Damage resistance and better mental endurance

Bilingualism enhances cognitive control. In the studies it was confirmed, that lifelong bilingualism protects against age-related cognitive decline and postpones the onset of symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s syndrome for 3-4 years in average. It’s a very long-term benefit, and maybe not a very big one since we are talking about raising kids, but this case also shows that bilingual brain is more capable and enduring. According to the evidence, it does not withstand the disease, rather it boosts brain to handle more damage. [Link #8]

7. Better word memorization

And this is the least ambiguous and clear advantage. There was an experiment to measure word memorizing efficiency for bilinguals. In the experiment the researchers created a list of words (not real, they made them up). And then they tested 20yo monolinguals and bilinguals. It turned out that natural bilinguals learn new words faster. Since learning definitions and new words represent a big part of education, we may say that bilingualism boosts learning. [Link #9]

These are all advantages I found, now let’s move to the concerns!