Saturday, October 2, 2010

Cognitive advantages of being bilingual

Master 2 and Master 4 are fortunate to come from a family that will provide them with exposure, experience and identity from another culture. The boy's dad is New Zealand Maori and together we use simple forms of the spoken language (Te Reo) to the boys at home. (Thankfully a requirement of my teaching years in NZ meant I had to teach a basic level of the language!) Both my husband and I agree that although the boys are being raised here in Australia, they are in fact of Maori heritage and it is important that they are aware of this. We feel it is important for our boys to communicate with all members of the close and extended family as well as with friends, particularly when we are back visiting in New Zealand.

There are several advantages of being bilingual beyond the obvious one of being able to communicate in more than one language. However, many parents and grandparents worry about possible negative effects. When I was teaching in London I would often be asked by parents, Is speaking to my child in two different languages delaying his talking in either of the languages?

In response to this I like to refer to this analogy:

If you are building two houses, it will probably take you longer than if you are building just one. This is not necessarily a bad thing--you won't be homeless forever, and when you're done you'll have two houses instead of just one. The point of building a house is not to move in as quickly as possible, but to provide a safe and comfortable home for years (generations, perhaps!) to come.

Growing up bilingual can be a tremendous blessing. In addition to the obvious benefit (i.e., the ability to speak and understand more than one language), recent research has revealed a number of cognitive advantages to bilingualism.

Bilingual children have been shown to have:
1. better metalinguistic awareness (ability to identify and describe
characteristics and features of language);
2. better classification skills;
3. better concept formation;
4. better analogical reasoning;
5. better visual-spatial skills;
6. better storytelling skills;
7. better semantic development.

How to Raise Bilingual Children

There are a few different ways that parents can successfully bring up their children to be fluent in more than one language. In many families, each parent speaks only one language with the child. This can also work if a nanny or grandparent speaks to the child consistently in a language that is different to the one the parents speak. Other families speak a different language in different settings, for example a minority language at home and the majority language in public. There can even be an agreement to speak alternate languages every other day.

Interaction as well as exposure seems to be critical. Children don't usually end up knowing a language just from TV. They need a fluent speaker to talk to. It used to be thought that it was better for the child to master one language well before hearing the other, to avoid confusion, but nowadays most researchers don't believe that. Children's brains have a tremendous capacity to absorb different languages and differentiate them.

In immigrant families, a child may learn only the minority language at home. They may become fully bilingual after they start school and learn the majority language. But a common historical phenomenon is that such children later forget the minority language, or retain only a receptive understanding, without full speaking fluency. There may be many complex psychological and social reasons, such as embarrassment at feeling different from peers. Yet in many parts of the world, such as Scandinavia, Switzerland and India, multilingualism is universal and is promoted naturally both in homes and school systems from an early age.

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