More and more, researchers are concluding that being bilingual, and particularly, becoming bilingual as an infant, has huge benefits on brain development. And while there’s no short or simple explanation for how babies become bilingual, the message is increasingly clear—the sooner infants get exposed to a second language, the better.
Read Related: Bilingual from Birth: Raising My Son in Two Languages
Here is a round-up of key findings of studies of the bilingual brain, along with mounting evidence—as if we needed more proof!—of why you’re doing your kids a huge favor by raising them bilingually:
Grey matter matters: The density of grey matter in the brain is considered a measure of a subject’s intelligence or skill in a particular area. So the denser the grey matter, the higher the IQ or unique talent, say at music or math. Studies have shown that bilingual people have denser grey matter than monolinguals. The sooner the second language was learned, the denser the grey matter, particularly in left part of the brain that controls language.
Younger is better: Bilingual children use parts of the brain that are no longer accessible in later life. The brain’s ability to absorb and comprehend language is sharpest in the first year of life and starts to decrease after 12 months. By the time a child reaches puberty, his ability to learn a language has decreased significantly.
Thinking in two languages: The bilingual brain is constantly making decisions. Even when only one language is being spoken at a time, a bilingual is thinking and processing information in two languages. Because a bilingual’s brain has to work harder at keeping two languages separate, its “executive control system” is trained to focus attention on what’s important and ignores distraction. And that helps mental acuity in all its facets, not just in language.
Increased brain fitness: All that processing and decision-making a bilingual must do, 24 hours a day, means they have a level of mental fitness that studies suggest, outpaces their monolingual peers. Bilingual children, when given non language-based tests of cognitive awareness, routinely score higher than monolingual children.
A 2009 paper published by ASHA, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, pointed out these major differences in the linguistic and cognitive functions of bilingual versus monolingual children, all of which point to distinct advantages for bilingual kids: