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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The research refers to children raised with a language at home that differs from the dominant language outside the home, such as in school. Compared to monolinguals, the bilingual children develop greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making judgment and responsiveness to feedback. The correlated fMRI scans of these children reveal more activity in the prefrontal cortex networks that control these executive functions.

Exercising Their Thinking Brains Early and Often

The leading explanation for this correlation is the need of bilinguals to frequently "select" which language is needed, what words fit the linguistic criteria and how to convey their intended meaning each time they communicate. To do this, the brain must actively evaluate between the competing language systems and deliberately focus attention on the chosen language.

The research interpretation of the fMRI and cognitive tests is that the ongoing evaluation and selection process in bilingual children exercises brain circuits which regulate attention control and block distraction. This neural network activation of the executive functions is one suggested explanation for the higher performance in cognitive tests by children who have had five to ten years of bilingual exposure (Bialystok, 2009; Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2007). Further studies are investigating whether similar benefits are found in children who have exposure to a second language later in life.

Better Memory and Attention

The implications of the bilingual research also relate to the influence of the higher brain's executive functions on working (short-term) memory strength down in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the relay station where new information is first encoded into memory before moving up to the prefrontal cortex for further processing into long-term memory. In the mature brain, the amount of information that can be "held" in mind for active processing in working memory is limited to somewhere between five and nine chunks of data.

"Holding" is what happens in your working memory when you perform the separate steps of mentally multiplying 11 x 15. Most people calculate the product of 10 x 15 and hold that 150 in mind while they calculate 1 x 15. The 150 is then reactivated and added to the 15. The limitation of holding data while simultaneously processing data is why you can't multiply 2417 x 429 mentally. There is simply too much information to store in the hippocampus while you carry out all those separate multiplications.

In the bilingual children, the higher performance in nonverbal cognition suggests that "holding" information in their working memory also benefits their early and frequent executive function exercise of paying attention to and evaluating language.

Implications for Brighter Starts

The incoming research supports encouraging parents to retain use of their native language in the home. The implications also raise considerations of what other early exposures and in-school experiences can be designed to promote these executive function activations in all children. What other planned learning activities can be so engaging as to promote the activation and strengthening of young children's developing networks of attentive focus? Should second language instruction begin earlier in elementary school?

I'll keep you posted as further research becomes available, and I look forward to your contributions to this dialogue.

References

Bialystok, E. (2009). Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 12 (1):3-11. Cambridge University Press.

Kaushanskaya, M., & Marian, V. (2007). Age-of-acquisition effects in the development of a bilingual advantage for word learning. Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development. Cascadilla Press; Somerville, MA.

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lilly's picture
Lilly
Parent of two young kids in Australia

The research is definitely interesting, and I definitely support expanding children's learning and adaptive capacities through languages. My question is, how does this transpose to societies that are bilingual, i.e. the Philippines, where majority speak their native dialect as well as english because of the educational system as well as pop culture? Does this mean that as a society, the children over there have far more potential to develop the above mentioned attributes? Or does the baseline shift if majority of the society is bilingual? I'd love to see research on this, if it already exists. Otherwise, there's the opportunity!

And another question - do the above findings hold for multiple languages (more than two)?

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author
Blogger

RESPONSES TO BLOG RESPONSES FROM DR JUDY WILLIS

RE question about "Bilingual societies" Does the baseline shift if majority of the society is bilingual?
No research that I've seen suggests there would be a difference. The benefit would appear to apply to the brain's stimulation of the executive functions in any situation such as the one you describe in the Philippines.
The research is particularly focused on very young true bilingual experiences: a home language in predominant use that differs from the language predominantly used in the society/school, etc. outside the home

RE question about Research Sources
* Bialystok, E., Luk, G., Peets, K. F. & Yang, S. (2010). Receptive vocabulary differences in monolingual and bilingual children. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 13, 525-531.
* Darcy, N. T. 1946. The effect of bilingualism upon the measurement of the intelligence of children of preschool age. The Journal of Educational Psychology 37, 21-44.
* Raluca Barac & Ellen Bialystok, Cognitive development of bilingual children. Language Teaching (2011) a Journal published by Cambridge University Press

ayame's picture

It was a very interesting article. However I am still suspicious that bilingual children does *not* always get a benefit from a bilingual environment. Is there any researcher who tries to figure out why so many parents are discouraged to retain another language at home? I am from Asia and currently raising two children - preschooler & kindergartener - in the small town where my children are never exposed to my native language except me. One of my children, a kindergartener, definitely has a delay in English because I spoke only my native language to her until she was 3 years old. She could not speak English at all when she started her preschool. She still has difficulty in following teacher's instructions at school after spending with the same teachers in the same school for 3 years (2 years for preschool and 1 year for kindergarten). As far as I know from other references, there is no scientific proof that all bilingual children have a delay to catch up with another language. Obviously this makes me feel so upset and nervous. If my child cannot perform well academically in English at school, what is a reason to retain her first language which she uses only with her mother? Academic success comes first more than anything. For this reason, I completely stopped talking my native language to children. The second child does not speak my native language at all. This is one of the realities among parents who are struggling and discouraged to retain bilingual language at home. I wish there are more research results to help us understand why certain children have difficulty in retaining two languages and what are solutions for them and their children.

ayame's picture

It was a very interesting article. However I am still suspicious that bilingual children does *not* always get a benefit from a bilingual environment. Is there any researcher who tries to figure out why so many parents are discouraged to retain another language at home? I am from Asia and currently raising two children - preschooler & kindergartener - in the small town where my children are never exposed to my native language except me. One of my children, a kindergartener, definitely has a delay in English because I spoke only my native language to her until she was 3 years old. She could not speak English at all when she started her preschool. She still has difficulty in following teacher's instructions at school after spending with the same teachers in the same school for 3 years (2 years for preschool and 1 year for kindergarten). As far as I know from other references, there is no scientific proof that all bilingual children have a delay to catch up with another language. Obviously this makes me feel so upset and nervous. If my child cannot perform well academically in English at school, what is a reason to retain her first language which she uses only with her mother? Academic success comes first more than anything. For this reason, I completely stopped talking my native language to children. The second child does not speak my native language at all. This is one of the realities among parents who are struggling and discouraged to retain bilingual language at home. I wish there are more research results to help us understand why certain children have difficulty in retaining two languages and what are solutions for them and their children.

ayame's picture

It was a very interesting article. However I am still suspicious that bilingual children does *not* always get a benefit from a bilingual environment. Is there any researcher who tries to figure out why so many parents are discouraged to retain another language at home? I am from Asia and currently raising two children - preschooler & kindergartener - in the small town where my children are never exposed to my native language except me. One of my children, a kindergartener, definitely has a delay in English because I spoke only my native language to her until she was 3 years old. She could not speak English at all when she started her preschool. She still has difficulty in following teacher's instructions at school after spending with the same teachers in the same school for 3 years (2 years for preschool and 1 year for kindergarten). As far as I know from other references, there is no scientific proof that all bilingual children have a delay to catch up with another language. Obviously this makes me feel so upset and nervous. If my child cannot perform well academically in English at school, what is a reason to retain her first language which she uses only with her mother? Academic success comes first more than anything. For this reason, I completely stopped talking my native language to children. The second child does not speak my native language at all. This is one of the realities among parents who are struggling and discouraged to retain bilingual language at home. I wish there are more research results to help us understand why certain children have difficulty in retaining two languages and what are solutions for them and their children.

Blanca Orozco Novelo's picture
Blanca Orozco Novelo
Bilingual Kinder from Brownsville, TX

I have a child who speaks both english and spanish. My husband speaks to her in English and I speak to her in Spanish. She also speaks the language she is addressed in. It is very interesting to watch and hear when she switches from one language to the other within steps of us. It happens when she is having to communicate with us and must relate a message. I am amazed of the brain capacity and how the information is held and then translated within minutes. Both my husband and I speak both languages. We are both native spanish speakers and learned english in school. Both our parents did not know english when we were going to school. Nonetheless, they do not use the english language with my child since she is able to communicate with them in spanish. She is now in preschool and is preferring english versus spanish because that is what she is exposed to most of the time. I pretend I do not understand what she is saying in english and I help her translate english words to spanish so that she can give me a complete thought in spanish.

My suggestion to those parents who want to keep their native language, is to have one parent speak in the native language and the other in english, if the english is known.

Blanca Orozco Novelo's picture
Blanca Orozco Novelo
Bilingual Kinder from Brownsville, TX

If I may suggest, If there is someone in your household that knows english, then have them speak to your children in that language and you speak to them in your native language or vice versa.

I have not done research on my suggestion, but that is what I practice in my household and it is working. The reason I started doing it that way was through the suggestion of my child's pediatrician and a family friend who has been a bilingual pre-school teacher for 30 years. I took their expert advice on early childhood development and first hand experiences. They have seen how it applied through their patients and students. Give it a try and you will see. It is never too late to start.

MJF's picture

Hi, I'm not a teacher however I do have a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science & Engineering and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish Language and Literature. I also was born and raised in the US in a home where my immigrant parents from Spain who only finished high school could only speak to both my sister and I in Spanish because that is all they knew. When I started Kindergarten I did not speak a word of English and hence was put in a bilingual class with two other boys. However none of that prevented me from excelling in school. I learned english at school and continued with spanish at home. I studied hard, got good grades and then got into a good university. So lesson here is that if you have the chance to teach your child another language it is truly a missed opportunity if you don't take it. You have no idea how many people I meet who say to me, "I wish my parents would have taught me their language. Instead today I only speak english." That to me is a very sad story to hear especially in the global economy that we live in.

Delroy's picture
Delroy
Drama Teacher from Jamaica

Only recently I started teaching bilingual students. The article suggested that bilingual children develop greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making judgment and responsiveness to feedback. I feel that this observation is very much on point. At least that is what I have observed in my classes. The majority of my students have behavioural issues. However, the bilingual students are the easiest to get focused and actively participate in activities or discussion. When they fail to give feedback is mostly when monolingual students make them feel uncomfortable with their command of the English language.
I am attempting now to learn Spanish and revisiting my French so that I can speak to my son, who will be turning two years old soon in languages other than English.

megan.p.turner's picture

I am in ESOL education, specifically at the Elementary level, and have had the opportunity to work with children who are from diverse language backgrounds. I found this article very interesting, I had never considered the brain activity that exists in bilingual students. I have experienced something called the "monitor model" that is an internalized monitor of the student language production when they are transferring their knowledge from one language to another- I think that bilingualism is truly amazing, and I strongly agree with the statements in the article and subsequent posts supporting the use of the home language- I also believe that more teachers should use the first language of bilingual students as a resource in the classroom!

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