Bilingualism: what is it and how does it affect our brains?


Bilingualism: what is it and how does it affect our brains?

Bilingualism is one of the most fascinating human characteristics. According to UN statistics from 2021, there are approximately 3.3 billion bilingual people in the world – about 43% of the world’s population.

In this article we will examine what being bilingual means, the effect that age has on language acquisition and the benefits that learning another language can have on our brains.

Bilingual, what does it mean?

Dictionaries define bilingualism as the ability to speak two or more languages competently. This can happen in different ways like:

  • growing up in a bilingual family;
  • living in a bilingual country;
  • emigrating to another country;
  • through education.

Are you bilingual? The answer isn’t a simple yes or no as language researchers rate bilingualism on a scale. The different degrees of bilingualism depend on a person’s environment, the age they started learning a language and their level of competence.

So, it’s more a case of how bilingual are you?

The more proficient you are in a second language, and the more you use it in your daily life, the more bilingual you are.

Can you become bilingual without leaving your country of origin?

In response to the increased multiculturalism of the business world, schools are becoming more aware of the huge benefits of not teaching a foreign language purely as a subject in its own right. Programmes are now available with the specific objective of integrating a second language by using it as a communication tool for teaching other subjects.

Language immersion programmes like CLIL, IGCSE and the IB are examples of this. CLIL, which was introduced in Italy in 2010 and is very popular across Europe, uses English to teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. The IGCSE which is based on the British curriculum and exams for 14- to 16-year-olds is the world’s most popular programme and is available in over 70 subjects. Whilst with the IB, students can study core curriculum subjects in either English, French or Spanish.

These programmes promote “functional bilingualism” and equip school children with language skills that will help them later on in further education as well as when they join the job market.

What’s the best age to learn a new language?

I’m sure we’ve all heard someone say, “it’s best to learn a new language as a child because children’s brains are like sponges”.

Believe it or not, as late as the 1960s, bilingual children were considered to have serious developmental disadvantages. Ongoing research proves that this is not the case and in fact, bilingual children have many benefits over their monolingual counterparts including increased cognitive performance, better memory as well as elevated empathy and sensitivity.

The CRITICAL PERIOD is a term used by language researchers to refer to the ideal age to learn a new language, they say this is any age from 0 to 12 years old. So, it’s true, children’s developing brains are more efficient at grasping all the nuances of a new language, but why?

The left side of the brain deals with analytical and logical processes whereas the right side is more active in emotional and social processes. Learning a language involves all of these functions.

Brains develop gradually over time, so for children, this distinction between left and right isn’t fully established, meaning their brains are more “elastic” so kids learn a language using both sides of the brain. Whilst for adults – who have completed brain development – language learning is focused on one side of the brain only (usually the left).

But… before you worry that there’s no point in learning a second language after 12 years old, stop! Whilst it is true that there is an ideal age and there are extra advantages to learning as a child; this doesn’t mean there aren’t any benefits if you learn a new language as an adult.

What are the benefits of learning a second language as an adult?

Regardless of age, research shows that studying languages can still have positive effects on the brain including a higher density of grey matter and more activity in certain parts of the brain when speaking another language. This elevated brain activity can also help delay the onset of brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

Let’s not forget the social and professional advantages of even just conversational knowledge of another language.

Studying languages improves communication: not only will you develop a better understanding of the cultures which speak that language but it will also enhance your communication abilities in general which will in turn boost your professional skills.

Even though it is better to learn a language as a child, and as an adult you might not be able to become fully bilingual, however, learning a second language at any age will still provide you with a lot of advantages especially if you consider the benefits like improving your communication skills and delaying the signs of ageing.
Even 1 hour of language lessons a week will increase and improve your brain function.

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