Psychology: Learning Benefits of Children in Multilingual Families

Over the course of history, nothing has shaped human culture and development as much as languages. From the Indo-European language groups: Germanic, Slavic, Romance; to the language family Afro-Asiatic; to Semitic; each language has individually shaped the personality and culture of our world1, and continues to do so. In the modern world, foreign languages are becoming more relevant as businesses try to globalize their markets and profits.  As the world becomes more and more globalized, many more people are traveling and exploring the world. This leads to people of different cultures meeting and eventually starting new families. How do these new families cope with the variety of cultures? How do the children respond? How does knowing how to speak multiple languages impact and benefit children? This research essay will concisely explain the rewards of learning and growing up in a multilingual family.

Common Myths

First, there are some common myths about language learning at young ages that need to be addressed. For example, there seems to be a common stipulation that learning a language too early will lead to ‘language confusion’ and incomprehension of any language2. In fact the opposite seems to be true. The Cornell Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL) released studies (October 2005 – Ongoing) which showed that children who learn a second language can better maintain attention considerably better than children who know or speak only one language despite outside distractions3. This signifies that learning a language can actually improve your attention span and responses. Other studies find similar and intriguing results. Therese Caccavale, president of the National Network for Early Language Learning (NNELL) finds that young children that have already begun their second language grow considerably in cognitive abilities such as object permanence. Hence, ‘apple’ will remain ‘apple’ regardless of whether it is called, for example, manzana, pomme, or Apfel, therefore grasping the knowledge of direct objects and indirect objects sooner. So not only do children grasp concepts of other languages, but also particles of speech in the spoken language around them4. In this way foreign languages help children learn new material, as well as helping them tremendously with their main or native language.

Educational Benefits

And that’s not all, multiple languages help in all aspects of a young child’s school life. A study done in the UK introduced Esperanto to five schools around the country, to figure out benefits from learning a new language at a young age5. Esperanto is a constructed artificial language which had the goal of becoming a global ‘trade’ language. It was created in 1887 by a Jewish eye doctor to promote unity around the world6. It mainly draws on elements of Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages. Psychologists decided to test the effects of this constructed language on kids5. The results were extremely positive. This constructed language brought insights to their native language, new foreign languages the children had never been exposed to, and other subjects such as critical thinking, reading, and writing7. This study with a constructed language gives us a unique opportunity to glance at the effects of language in general. It seems that languages help in every facet and outlet they possibly can.

Language Retention

Most experts agree that language recognition and development starts at around 3-6 years of age8. If a second language is learned within these years it will most likely develop as a natural language to the child. Dr. Morrison, senior lecturer in psychology at The University of Leeds, calls the young malleable mind a sponge, open to all sorts of new information with seemingly endless retention capabilities8. Morrison argues that after these ages it is highly unlikely for anyone to acquire a native feel for a language. Research in public schools around the US shows that while pre-pubescent children seem to outperform adults and teens past the stages of puberty in language learning predominantly, it is not always the case4. To me the factor seems to be more centered around necessity and less about age, although age can affect necessity. A younger person may not see a foreign language as anything different and will learn it of a need to communicate. The young and older adults see foreign languages in the shape of grammar, lessons, and memorization. Therefore a younger child may be more motivated than an older person to learn a language and retain it.

Business Opportunities

So on average, language learning can raise cognitive thinking skills, but how else can learning a second language at a young age affect children? It was mentioned in the beginning of this essay that jobs around the world are looking for multilingual employees. Children who learn this earlier in their respective families have a higher chance of getting and maintaining these business positions. Not only does their multilingualism show that they can communicate with a whole different set of people, but also shows something about that person’s intellectual level.

Effects on the Brain

How does this all happen? How are the brains of young children able to encode and store these vast sums of information? According to Miranda Hitti, a senior medical writer for WebMD, bilingual brains have denser brain matter. In the brain, there are two types of visible matter: grey and white9. Grey brain matter is linked to better language, memory, and attention. Therefore as children learn more languages, their grey matter becomes more active, which keeps the brain sharp10. Specifically, the left side of the brain becomes denser, the side of the brain most commonly linked with communication language control9. Surprisingly, almost the same results appeared on the right side of the brain, although slightly reduced. This would suggest that young polyglots not only have better communication and verbal skills, but that they have also better spatial and coordination skills9. The most interesting fact learned about this study was that learning multiple languages affects brain structure directly.

Potential Health Benefits

Healthy brain matter is the key to all bodily functions and is useful in any real life situation. As children’s grey matter becomes more active it also has other long serving benefits, in terms of health and longevity. Thomas H. Bak, Jack J. Nissan, Michael M. Allerhand, and Ian J. Deary, authors of Annals of Neurology, conducted studies that concisely show that learning multiple languages benefits an aging brain11. Another study, performed by Dr. Morrison, illustrates that bilingualism prevents onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia8. Brian Gold, a neuroscientist at the University of Kentucky, composed a study with senior bilingual people and asked them to do a normal attention-switching task, for example calling out the color of a food item, and then being asked the name of the actual item12. He proceeded to do that in many different ways with many different subjects, bilingual and monolingual. Not surprisingly, the elder bilingual people, with higher cognitive skills, achieved better scores and recognition during the study. Neuroscientists now believe that this extra ‘brain power’ can offset mental and age related illnesses12. Children who learn other languages at younger ages are more likely to be resistant to onsets of dementia or Alzheimer’s because of increased brain control8.

Personalized Conclusion

In conclusion, learning multiple languages as a child can be extremely beneficial, promoting cognitive benefits in nearly every academic aspect. This relates to me because I grew up in one of these multilingual families. My father hails from Germany while my mother is from the beaches of Puerto Rico. I remember as a little child only speaking German one day and then switching to Spanish the next and English the next. Once I entered school I became more affluent in my English, making it my primary language of use, eventually weakening the other two. I continue my other languages too, of course, but off to the side, but they’ve helped me so much regardless. For example in chemistry, I use my German almost every class. Many of the early chemists were German and a lot of the early principles are named in German, making the understanding of the principles very easy. All I need to do is just read the German name, and voila. For example the Aufbau Principle, meaning ‘build up’, refers to the principle in which atoms are ‘built up’ by adding electrons and achieving a stable condition. In fact, most sciences use German words, so with a little thought, it’s not difficult to figure out what they mean. Spanish, as a Latin language descendant, has helped me mainly in English and literature. Surprising, I know. The English language takes a lot of stems from Latin and correlating them with my Spanish knowledge allows me to figure out new, longer words with minimal effort. Of course, these are just marginal benefits. According to the research above, much of my learning potential comes from knowing multiple languages. Everything from my reflexes to my critical thinking has been supported and helped along by foreign languages. I think children all over the world are affected by languages, whether they know it or not, and clearly the benefits are there. Intelligence, communication, business, and health; what else offers children such a good future? The skills and processes children learn with multiple languages stick with them for their whole lives and will definitely benefit them in the long run.


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12


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