The Second Language Brain Debate
Of all the issues around brain development, the most interesting to me has always been that of language learning- especially relating to second language learning. It probably has to with my background: my Dad is from Iran, and in my early childhood I spoke Farsi with him and English with my Mom. Eventually, though, my Dad worried that I would lag behind in school if he continued to speak Farsi with me, so he stopped. It wasn’t until I learned Spanish in high school and developed an interest in languages that I decided to revisit Farsi. I like to think that the Farsi just hovered around in the back of my brain somewhere waiting for me to use it again, because I’m picking it up at a good clip now.
That’s why I’m so pleased that some you are apparently interested in this too! The way the brain can learn a new language well into old age has raised a lot of discussion on how important it is for kids to grow up bilingually. It has been specifically asked: if Americans speak fewer languages than the rest of the world, does that mean our brains are less developed? Since I have written about the topic of languages and the brain before, I thought I would give it my best shot: countries that teach their children multiple languages from pre-adolescence onward produce citizens with more linguistically developed brains.
The first step in establishing this argument is to preemptively disprove the long-existing claim that raising a child bilingually slows down their brain development. According to a Dartmouth College study that I referred to the last time I wrote about this, “if children are exposed to two languages from a very early age, they will essentially grow as if there were two monolinguals housed in one brain… without any of the dreaded ‘language contamination’ often attributed to early bilingual exposure.” That same study demonstrated that learning a language early in childhood is actually better for our long-term brain development than learning it after we have “solidified” our primary language skills.
But what of those parents (like mine) who notice their bilingual children struggling more than their peers with remembering words? They’re not necessarily wrong, but recent studies also suggest that such issues are no cause for alarm. According to a recent study from research psychologist Elena Nicoladis, “lower lexical recall” is not indicative of children’s overall language ability. Rather, their lexical recall may simply lag behind the rest of their language abilities and catch up with that of their peers as they get older.
But beyond proving that learning two languages is not detrimental to one’s brain development, can we demonstrate any concrete benefits to being bilingual from childhood? In fact, we can, and they are quite similar to the benefits of using Posit Science programs: a more recent Dartmouth study from 2006 shows that “bilinguals appear to engage more of the neural landscape available for language processing than monolinguals.”
In other words, bilinguals are “exercising the brain” more and therefore, “it is the monolingual that is not taking full advantage of the neural landscape for language and cognitive processing than nature could have potentially made available.” These claims are further supported by studies showing that being bilingual can offset the development of dementia by four years and that bilingual people are less likely to suffer memory loss in general, which means that learning a second language is a form of brain training in itself. (My colleague Karen Merzenich addressed the topic of bilingualism as it relates to improved cognition in aging individuals in a previous post.)
I’m not suggesting that we Americans are somehow less intelligent than European nations where learning two or more languages is common place. After all, we consistently out-perform bilingual European countries like Norway in math and science, and there is a huge distinction between learning a language in childhood and maintaining it in adulthood: Christiane Cruz, who recently provided us with a testimonial, told us that she continued to encounter difficulties with her English while living in the US even though she had grown up learning English and German in her native Germany. But her case demonstrates how brain fitness is important for learning multiple languages, and the studies I’ve cited above certainly suggest that learning multiple languages is good for brain fitness. As I noted in the case of second language learning and brain fitness exercises are synergistically beneficial and a terrific combination for optimum brain health and cognition.