By Anne L. Beatty-Martínez & Christian A. Navarro-Torres
In today’s world, the vast majority of individuals speak more than one language. Even in the United States, which is often thought of as a monolingual country, one in five people speak a language other than English at home, and this rate is projected to continue growing in coming years.
In 2015, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences established a Commission on Language Learning to examine the current state of language education in the U.S. and offer recommendations for ways to meet the nation’s education needs. To this end, Profs. Judy Kroll and Giuli Dussias of the Bilingualism Matters at Penn State released a briefing paper to inform the public and policy makers on the cognitive and educational benefits that bilingualism provides. We summarize some of those benefits here.
Many bilinguals learn their languages directly from their parents in a multilingual home. Parents are sometimes taught that learning two languages can be confusing and even hinder development, but research has shown that learning two languages during infancy does not produce confusion or impair cognitive development. Instead, babies learn to discriminate their languages early in life and can acquire additional languages much faster than monolinguals, even if the two languages are very different (like English and Mandarin Chinese, for example). In essence, the brain and mind learn to adapt to the challenges of acquiring multiple languages.
These adaptations are not unique to infants who acquire the languages early in their lives. Other life experiences, such as becoming bilingual as an adult, also have important consequences for the mind and brain. These consequences may allow people to develop mastery of a second language, and may ultimately confer protective effects against the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
A positive trend among bilingual households in the U.S. is to encourage the development of English skills while maintaining the home language (Place & Hoff, 2011). Research has shown that continuing to develop the home language not only strengthens family ties but can support the acquisition of the second school language. One way to promote the development of both languages is through dual language programs. Embracing dual language learning within the classroom has been shown to improve academic performance in K-12 schools (Bibler, 2015).
Bilingual mixing or Codeswitching
Many bilinguals engage in codeswitching or “bilingual mixing” when speaking with other bilinguals. This ability to alternate between two languages in a conversation is a feature of bilingual communication that requires a high degree of skill in both languages.
Bilinguals who codeswitch are able to do so without any apparent disruptions to their ability to produce and comprehend language. In fact, the research suggests that people who codeswitch develop unique skills that allow them to keep track of important cues, such as the pronunciation of words, during a conversation.
In sum, research has shown that bilingualism has many cognitive and social benefits. Whether acquiring a language from birth at home, in early childhood at school, or even later on as an adult, bilingualism confers fundamental changes to the mind and brain that may be beneficial. In addition to these benefits, bilingualism offers the opportunity to learn about new people, and to embrace new ways of thinking about the world.
For more information on the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Commission on Language Learning visit: http://www.amacad.org/content/Research/researchproject.aspx?d=21896
Bibler, A. (2015). Dual Language Education and Student Achievement. In Proceedings of the 2015 Fall Conference: The Golden Age of Evidence-Based Policy. Association of Public Policy and Analysis Management (APPAM). Available online at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dbfa/3730974618e626695e0913fbd4b7badd94c7.pdf.
Place S, Hoff E. (2011). Properties of dual language exposure that influence 2-year-olds’ bilingual proficiency. Child Development, 82, 1834