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What’s Going on Inside the Brain of a Bilingual Child?

 -Suganya Natarajan

Have you ever watched your child saying “Naku idhi kavali”, to you and turn to someone and say, “this tastes better” or saying “poittu varaen” to mom and then “Guten tag” to the teacher or managing to ask for a Crayola roja instead of a red crayon. How are they programmed to switch between the languages so easily?

To know the secret, we need to understand how the knowledge of language is formed in the brain.

Babies take statistics of the language spoken to them and their brain makes connection to the sounds. Overtime sound categories form in the brain. This is how they learn any language. 

Researchers have discovered that young babies, prior to 6 months can detect every sound used in every language throughout the world. This is quite amazing, because, there are about 600 consonants and 200 vowels. Brain changes according to the statistics of the language. 

Bilinguals must keep two sets of statistics and switch between the two.

“Bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime”- Gigi Luk, Harvard University. 

Babies exposed to multiple languages in social interaction on a regular basis will efficiently and easily organize the sound patterns of each language and in time, speak each language fluently. 

Infancy and early childhood mark a critical period for language learning. This window of opportunity starts to diminishes as infants approach their 2nd birthday. Overtime, this ability narrows down and by adulthood learning a second language is more challenging. 

So what are the benefits of being bilingual ?

Attention – Mastering more than one language during early years appears to maintain flexibility within the brain. Children exposed to multiple languages as infants, show significantly stronger activation in the brain areas responsible for executive functions. Executive functioning involves processes like switching attention, flexible thinking, and updating information and cognitive flexibility.

Empathy – bilingual children have to follow social cues to figure out which language to talk to which person. This enables them to understand other’s perspective early when compare to their peers, thus forming the fundamentals of social and emotional skills.

Reading – Linguists believe that when children are exposed to multiple languages at a young age, they’re better equipped to pick up on word structure. This can help bilingual students develop phonological awareness skills, an essential pre-reading ability, faster than their peers.

Academic performance and engagement – dual- language students have higher test scores and also seem to be happier in school. Attendance is better, behavioral problems fewer, parent involvement higher. 

Less prone to cognitive decline anddementia – bilinguals are more resilient in dealing with neurodegeneration than monolinguals. They operate at a higher level of functioning because of the cognitive reserve, and this delays the onset of dementia symptoms.

Benefits of bilingual also includes, greater job opportunities, enhanced communication skills, increased creativity, heightened cognitive ability, and improved health.

Learning starts in the womb. Talk to your children – in your native language, the language spoken in the country/place you live and one more. Happy learning. 


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