Like many parents who speak more than one language, I am raising my children to be bilingual. My elder child is fluent in both English and Dutch, and the younger understands Dutch but hesitates to speak it. I often wonder what impact growing up in a bilingual family might have on my kids.

While it was once thought that speaking more than one language to a child could slow the child’s language development, we now understand that doing so has many possible benefits, including earlier development of social skills and perhaps even a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. 

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Enhanced processing in bilingual children

Understanding that language is a code that reflects things from the real world – gaining ‘metalinguistic awareness’ – is a fairly complex cognitive process. Bilingual children develop this awareness earlier than monolingual children simply because they regularly hear the words for concepts and objects in two languages.  

My daughter, now six years old, quickly caught onto this even as a toddler, and would translate words like lion and monkey when she realised she knew two words for each animal. Now when I speak Dutch to her in the presence of a non-Dutch-speaking friend, she takes it upon herself to translate. Early on she became aware that most of her friends cannot understand the ‘code’ I speak to her. 

This difference in metalinguistic awareness was studied as early as 1986, when researchers asked children questions like “Which word is bigger: caterpillar or train?” The correct answer, of course, is caterpillar, but many young children say that the word “train” is bigger, simply because a train is physically larger than a caterpillar. “Bilingual children home in on the fact that words are separate from their reference, and they will give the correct answer at an earlier age than a monolingual child,” explains Panos Athanasopoulos, Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Lund University. This is because bilingual children routinely use different words to represent the same thing.

Bilingual children outperform monolingual children on a task which involves putting themselves in someone else’s shoes.”

Bilingual children may benefit from enhanced processing in other areas, too. For instance, they outperform monolingual children on a task which involves putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. In one study, three cars of different sizes were placed in front of four- to six-year-old children, with the smallest car out of the view of the researcher. When the researcher said, “I see a small car, can you move the small car?”, the bilingual children were more likely than the monolingual children to move the medium-sized car, recognising that this was the smallest car the researcher could see. The reasoning here is that bilingual children are constantly paying attention to who speaks which language – they are used to paying attention to other people’s perspectives.

Switching languages as an adult

Developing proficiency in two languages during childhood can have an impact in adulthood too, in ways we might not expect. Switching between languages can change how individuals respond to a moral dilemma, a phenomenon known as the foreign language effect. Bilinguals were asked whether they would push one person off a bridge to their death to save five people. When asked in the language they were most comfortable with, they were more likely to say that they would not do so. Asked in their less familiar language, they were more likely to pick the ‘utilitarian option’ – pushing one person to save five others.  

In a new study presented at the European Second Language Association Conference in September 2023, Athanasopoulos’ team found that the foreign language effect was present even in speakers who are not very proficient in a second language. It appears that this effect occurs because the more familiar and perhaps personal language – often the one spoken with family – is more closely connected to the emotional parts of the brain. The language bilinguals speak in more formal settings, like school or work, allows for a more logical or objective view, providing a different perspective. “This is interesting because monolinguals tend to take an affective approach to moral questions and to be guided by their impulses, whereas bilinguals have the option to switch to their other language and to think about the problem a bit more,” says Athanasopoulos. 

The bilingual brain

It is clear that learning an additional language changes the brain, giving a range of possible cognitive benefits. “The languages bilinguals speak are served by the same neural network in the same part of the brain, giving them cognitive advantages. The same neurons are engaged in more activity when a person speaks two languages,” explains Athanasopoulos. As a result, the neural pathways and grey matter become more dense in bilinguals than in monolinguals. This is believed to be beneficial because learning is enhanced when areas of our brain are consistently activated.

“Learning an additional language changes the brain, giving a range of possible cognitive benefits.”

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Of course, consistently exposing children to additional languages remains a challenge – especially when only one parent speaks both languages, as is the case in my home. I’m confident, however, that the effort I’m putting in will be worth it, as it provides my children with an invaluable advantage – the ability to speak two languages.

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