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Does Bilingualism Hurt or Harm?

Should I teach my child my native language as well as English, or will it overwhelm her?
Many bilingual parents worry that teaching their child their native language will cause them to fall behind in school or in learning English in general. Many studies have suggested that early bilingualism (learning two languages from birth) actually gives children better cognitive capabilities. Specifically, the ability to pay attention only to important things and ignore irrelevant information is thought to be more advanced in bilingual children, both of which are vital to problem-solving skills. A 2005 study looked at this effect over the course of the lifetime, and found that bilingualism may not only give your child an advantage while young, it may also protect them from the natural deterioration of aging.

What did the study measure? The study measured the time it took to press a computer key on two types of questions, simple and more difficult. A speedier response time indicates faster cognitive processing and more efficient attention skills. Four age groups were examined: five-year-old children, young adults (undergraduate students), middle-aged adults (aged 30-59), and older adults (aged 60-80).

What did the study find? Bilingual people had faster response times in every age category except young adults, for both the simple and more difficult questions. Language experience had no effect on the response times of young adults, which indicates that bilingualism offers them no cognitive advantage. Middle-aged people all did better than older people, but within each of these groups bilingual people did better than people who only spoke one language.

What does this mean? The researchers think that the bilingualism advantage disappears when people are at their peak processing efficiency as young adults. However, being bilingual does give children an advantage over their peers in that they can solve problems faster. Bilingualism also seems to insulate people somewhat from the cognitive effects of aging. While bilingualism is not some miracle cure to the effects of aging, it does seem to lessen the slowing down of thought processes that accompanies age.

Why is there a bilingual effect at all? According to the researchers, knowing more than one language hones a person’s attention and inhibition functions, because they are constantly having to:

  1. Consciously pay attention to only one language at a time, and
  2. Inhibit (or suppress) the knowledge of the other language they know.

So, teaching your child your native language as well as English may give them a lifelong advantage!

Source: Bialystok, E., Martin, M. M., & Viswanathan, M. (2005). Bilingualism across the lifespan: The rise and fall of inhibitory control. International Journal of Bilingualism, 9 (1), 103-119.

Katherine Christ, honours Linguistics,Head of Research at Simone-Friedman Speech-Language Services

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