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Education Nation: The real benefits of being bilingual

For years, many thought being bilingual would slow a child’s progress in school. Today, studies show being bilingual benefits your brain functions for life, and some researchers believe bilingualism can even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

“From a very young age, children who are bilingual are using their executive control system and in a way that advances its development,” says Dr. Ellen Bialystok ,a cognitive neuroscientist and Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto. The executive control system is, “the basis for every hard thing we do. It helps us pay attention to this and ignore that,” says Dr. Bialystok, adding, “It’s precisely the system the brain calls on to pay attention to one language over the other.”

This means bilingual children constantly use their executive control systems to switch between languages. And frequently exercising this function makes bilinguals better at planning, focusing, multitasking and problem solving. This doesn’t mean bilinguals have a higher I.Q., but it does mean their executive control systems are more advanced.

For example, in Bialystok’s 2004 study with Martin-Rhee, bilingual children were faster than monolingual children at sorting objects into bins by shape despite conflicting colors. Bilingual children ignored distractions, because their executive control systems are more developed.  This skill translates into directing attention away from everyday distractions as well; from noises while driving to classroom chatter during a lecture.

“This back and forth switching [between languages] is a strengthening agent for the brain,” says Dr. Patricia Kuhl, Co-Director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences and Bezos Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Early Childhood. Dr. Kuhl even goes so far as to say bilingualism, “allows you, in those frontal areas, to make decisions better, to be more creative in your thinking and it’s protective against age or brain disease like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

In a small 2012 study headed by neuropsychologist Dr. Tamar Gollan with 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, those with a higher degree of bilingualism resisted Alzheimer’s better than others. And in Bialystok’s 2012 Neurology study of 211 bilinguals and monolinguals, those who spoke multiple languages showed signs of Alzheimer’s five years later than their monolingual counterparts.

Speaking more than one language and exercising the executive control system regularly is, in Dr. Bialystok’s words, “the ultimate Sudoku or ultimate crossword puzzle!”

Despite research showing many benefits for those who speak multiple languages, many Americans remain skeptical.

“I think that people are afraid of bilingualism in general,” says Dr. Kuhl who believes many parents fear increasing skills in one language will reduce your skills in another. But as she points out, “Research is showing that’s not the case.”

While bilingualism doesn’t hinder your child’s learning, it makes speaking more work. Bilinguals have to produce speech rapidly and coherently while there are two languages in their heads.

“But that extra work, the extra burden of speaking one language when there are two of them in your head is precisely the source of the benefit of bilingualism,” says Dr. Bialystok, adding, “[Bilinguals are] getting a remedial brain workout that pays off more fully. They have to negotiate more in ordinary language use because they have two languages that are potentially available.”

This doesn’t mean your bilingual child is slow or falling behind. According to a 2006 study by Georgetown Professors Dr. King and Dr. Fogle suggests bilingual children actually meet major language milestones at the same time as monolinguals.

In fact, Dr. Kuhl suggests measuring your bilingual child’s skills will prove they’re on the same level as monolingual children or exceeding them. “You can count words, you can do brain measures and see how the brain is responding to sounds or words or the grammar of the two languages,” says Dr. Kuhl who points out that parents and educators often make the mistake of measuring only one language’s vocabulary.“You’ve got to give them credit for every conceptual vocabulary item they have, regardless of which language it’s in,” she says.

More than fear or worries, dual-language programs in the United States are lagging behind the rest of the world.

“We’re doing it incorrectly,” says Dr. Kuhl about the United States’ strides to develop and teach multiple languages in classrooms.

Dr. Kuhl isn’t the only researcher who thinks the U.S. needs to tweak bilingual education programs before schools lag too far behind. In a 2009 study by Travis England in the Washington University Law Review, England details 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act and English immersion programs that hinder bilingual students.

To develop better dual-language programs, the U.S. would need to start language learning earlier than high school, provide native speakers and educate teachers. Dr. Kuhl adds, “As you can see, successful programs [like Geddes Elementary School in Baldwin Park, CA.] do exist. But that doesn’t mean we’re there yet.”

RELATED: Education Nation: Dual language program in California helps Latino children succeed

While children in other countries like China are learning in multiple languages, the United States is battling over dual-language education reform. According to Dr. Kuhl, bilingual education reform is essential or, “We’re simply not going to compete on the world stage.”

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