In an increasingly more complex world children should have access to a bilingual education that allows them to learn how to communicate in more than just their mother tongue. Being able to think in more than one language allows children’s young brains to develop in a more complex way.
The cognitive and neurological benefits of bilingualism extend from early childhood to old age as the brain more efficiently processes information and staves off cognitive decline.
The attention and ageing benefits discussed above aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life.
They have enriched cognitive control.
It’s likely that they have improved metalinguistic awareness.
They have better memory, visual-spatial skills and even creativity.
There are also social benefits from being bilingual. For example, having the ability to explore a culture through its native tongue or talking to someone with whom you might otherwise never be able to communicate.
The constant juggling of two languages creates a need to control how much a person accesses a language at any given time. This is an important skill from a communicative standpoint, as it is hard to understand a message if your other language always interferes. A bilingual speaker uses his control mechanisms every time he speaks or listens. This constant practice strengthens the control mechanisms and changes the associated brain regions.
Bilingual people often perform better on tasks that require conflict management, as they are better than monolinguals in ignoring irrelevant information. This is called inhibitory control. Moreover, bilinguals are better than monolinguals in switching between tasks.
Being bilingual can have tangible practical benefits. The improvements in cognitive and sensory processing driven by bilingual experience may help a person to better process information, leading to a clearer signal for learning. The bilingual language-learning advantage may be rooted in the ability to focus on information about the new language while reducing interference from the languages they already know. This ability would allow bilingual people to access newly learned words more easily, leading to larger gains in vocabulary than those experienced by monolingual people who aren’t as skilled at inhibiting competing information.
The benefits associated with bilingualism seem to start early – researchers have shown positive influence of bilingualism on attention and conflict management in infants as young as seven months.
(Data collected from a University of Groningen study)
Studies suggest that bilingual advantages in executive function are not limited to the brain’s language network. Bilingual people show increased activation in the brain region associated with cognitive skills like attention and inhibition. For example, bilinguals are proven to be better than monolinguals in encoding the fundamental frequency of sounds in the presence of background noise. So, in a noisy restaurant, it will be easier for a bilingual person than for a monolingual person to encode what the other person is saying.
A bilingual experience not only changes the way neurological structures process information, but may also alter the neurological structures themselves. Higher proficiency in a second language as well as earlier acquisition of that language, correlates with higher gray matter volume in the left inferior parietal cortex. This is the part of the brain where language switching is managed.