Give Your Child the Gift of Bilingualism


Santiago Montero
Santiago is the founder and director of a language school in Washington DC. He has also worked tirelessly to integrate the fields of education and mass media in Europe and Latin America for the last fifteen years. You can read about Santiago, his methods and his school, at Spanish Tutor DC.

Not since some widely discredited studies in the nineteenth century have scientists had a bad word to say about bilingualism. On the contrary, mounting evidence suggests that bilingualism is good for us, and particularly good for our brains. From delaying the onset of Alzheimers to stimulating an increase in brain size, it seems to be now irrefutable that the acquisition of language has an extraordinary and unique role to play in shaping our body’s most enigmatic and complex organ.

The current line of argument suggests that using two or more languages frequently is a form of mental exercise that is good for our brain. It is important to note that those who use two languages most frequently see the greatest benefits of bilingualism, simply knowing another language and not practising it is insufficient. This fact supports the bilingualism as exercise theory: those who frequently switch between languages are forever suppressing words or activating them mentally depending on the context.

The results of these studies suggest that if we are interested in studying simply to improve our mental faculties, then the study of languages will give us more value for our time investment than the study of other subjects (and debateably the study of languages have a good deal more practical applications than other subjects too). Take the recent study conducted at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy, where young and talented recruits go from having no knowledge of complex languages such as Russian and Arabic to being reasonably fluent in thirteen months. Researchers measured participant’s hippocampus before and after their intensive study of language and found a measurable increase in size[1].

The control group were subject to equally intensive study, but in medicine and cognitive sciences rather than language, and demonstrated no measurable brain growth. The neurological basis for language skills is not yet fully understood. However, the researchers did find that the students who demonstrated the largest brain growth were those who had better language learning skills than their peers.

Coupled with last year’s study suggesting that onset of symptoms in Alzheimer’s disease is delayed in bilinguals, we have even more evidence to suggest that language learning is a great way to keep the brain in shape. A study submitted to the American Academy of Neurology last year found that bilinguals were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 4.5 years later than monolinguals, even when factors such as education and immigration were controlled for[2]. The delay was present even in those who are illiterate, which, like the Swedish study, shows that the study of language has a special influence on the brain that cannot be explained by education alone.

Both studies discussed so far have looked at the influence of bilingualism on young adults and older. It’s heartening for those of us who are already adolescents (or older…) to hear that these cognitive advantages are still accessible to those of us who learn languages later in life. Yet it is our children who stand to gain most from bilingualism, both for the brain exercise outlined above and because it will enable them to communicate with another culture for an entire lifetime.

One last piece of evidence to consider: researchers from Anglia Ruskin University have found that young bilingual pupils are better at picking out the answer to questions despite noise interference than their monolingual companions[3]. The participants were supposed to listen out to the answer to a question whilst unrelated voice recordings were played to distract them. Though the bilinguals spoke a variety of languages, including Russian, Bengali and Polish, they were all significantly better at this task than the English only speakers. Given that classrooms for young learners tend to be extraordinarily noisy environments, this ability to focus on the correct information whilst filtering out the interference will undoubtedly come in very handy during a youngster’s twelve plus years of education.

We still don’t know exactly why bilingualism is good for us, and given our limited understanding of the brain that still may take sometime. Yet by now I think it is fair to say that we have established enough evidence to say conclusively that it is good for you, especially if you not only know two languages but also speak them frequently. As parents and teachers, it is our responsibility to enable and encourage our children to pursue bilingualism and reap the cognitive, not to mention cultural benefits, of knowing two tongues. Like physical exercise that builds and maintains our bodies, it may well transpire that language learning is a mental activity that builds and maintains our brains.

[1]Mårtensson, Johan et al. “Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning.” Neuroimage 63.1 (2012): 240-244.
[2]Alladi, Suvarna et al. “Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status.” Neurology 81.22 (2013): 1938-1944.
[3]Filippi, Roberto et al. “Bilingual children show an advantage in controlling verbal interference during spoken language comprehension.” Bilingualism: Language and Cognition: 1-12.