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In recent years, thanks to advances in brain imaging technology, neuro-linguists have discovered how specific aspects of language learning affect the brain. It appears that if we are bilingual, or multilingual, our brain may look and work differently to the brain of a monolingual.
A 2015 study from Georgetown University Medical Centre (though not wholly conclusive) backed up the growing understanding that long term experience with a particular skill changes the structure of the brain. It is believed that in the case of bilinguals, managing two languages increases grey matter in parts of the brain. So if you are attending one of our Chinese enrichment classes, whether a primary student in a Chinese composition class or a toddler enjoying one of our Chinese playgroup sessions, this study suggests, that to do so regularly and long term will increase your brain’s grey matter.
Why is grey matter important? Because grey matter contains most of our brain’s neurons. And it’s these regions of the brain that determine muscle control and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making and self-control. In other words, possessing a high volume of grey matter is good!
But what are the specific benefits to us by increasing the volume of grey matter in our brains? Can it help us learn better? Are there any health benefits? And what are the practical benefits of being able to speak more than one language?
A brainy workout: Because learning a language involves the function of both the right and left hemispheres of the brain, the brain experiences more activity in certain areas, just like a physical workout. This heightened brain activity is believed to benefit cognition, particularly later in life. So although learning a language when older is definitely more challenging than when very young, it is nonetheless good for your brain! (So don’t forget, at EduGrove we have classes for adults too!)
Future health: Maintaining a mentally active brain is now believed to help delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Effective Executive Function: First of all, what exactly is Executive Function? This is the process in the brain that deals with problem solving, switching between tasks and focusing while filtering out irrelevant information. Valuable skills to posses in all areas of school, work and life! Studies have shown that the effort involved in switching between languages strengthens the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain that plays a large role in Executive Function. The conclusion being that bilinguals may be better at solving problems, concentrating on specific activities and switching comfortably between tasks than their monolingual peers. Most of our programmes at EduGrove, from Chinese playgroup to our Chinese holiday programmes engage students in activities that involve creative thinking and problem solving, whether as individuals or as part of a team; activities that enhance the brain’s Executive Function.
Global Citizen: From traveling with ease, ordering food in a restaurant, sparking friendships and creating connections, being able to empathise with others, understanding different cultures, to reading books and watching movies, there are many practical benefits to speaking and understanding other languages.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is my child likely to be smarter than other children if he is bilingual?
As we have discovered, there are many benefits to having a bilingual brain, increased effective-ness in Executive Function being one of them. This does not mean that your child will necessarily be smarter than other children. But more importantly, it does mean that they will acquire useful skills that will help them to succeed academically and cope socially and emotionally in life. Linguist and Educator Mia Nacamulli says that bilingualism leads to the brain being ‘more healthy, complex and actively engaged.’
How should we go about teaching our child to learn another language?
The most important thing you can do to help your child learn another language is to immerse them within that language on a consistent and long term basis. If you want your child to master Mandarin, ideally start their exposure to the language as early as possible. Surround them with Chinese storybooks and children’s music, and participate with them in a quality Chinese enrichment class. Absorbing language naturally from the start, during what is considered the Critical Period, makes the learning process a whole lot easier. If you have older children, as we have discovered here, due to the constant activity in the brain from acquiring language, it is never too late for them to start the learning process. Most importantly though it must be fun. That’s why our EduGrove methodology is so successful. The process of learning Chinese at every level is such good fun that students remain curious, inspired and engaged. Key elements to successful language learning.
Should we wait for our child to become proficient in one language before we start him off on another?
No! The plasticity of a young child’s developing brain (put very simply) enables them to cope with learning several languages simultaneously. What is important is the quality and quantity of your child’s language interactions – at any age. For example, who do they hear speaking Mandarin and English around them? Who or what are their role models? A qualified standard Mandarin speaking teacher? A slang-filled American TV programme? How much language do they hear? What is the level of their exposure? These are factors that will affect the proficiency of your child’s language learning.
At EduGrove, we choose teachers who, in addition to being talented individuals with excellent qualifications from top universities, are also the best language role models.
A further consideration is how important the ‘another’ language is. Equal exposure to two languages, i.e. situations and activities that allow your child to hear roughly the same amount of vocabulary or new phrases in both languages simultaneously, should enable them to pick up both languages equally. If your child only hears Mandarin spoken occasionally however or has relatively few interactions with Mandarin speakers – Aunty Xiao Mei once in a blue moon – then Mandarin is going to be more challenging. Research indicates that more-or-less equal and simultaneous exposure to both languages will result in more-or-less equal proficiency.
That being said there is no guarantee that equal exposure in the early years will ensure that the child is able to use both languages equally well. The dynamics can change, turning one language into a more dominant language. (We’ll touch upon this in our next post.)
Also NEXT TIME…
Bilingualism in a global society: We’ll learn some interesting facts about the national languages of different countries, how many people globally are believed to speak more than one language and how Mandarin continues to expand as a language of the world.