Bilingualism and the Brain

08/02/2012 - A new study by a York University researcher provides evidence to suggest that bilingualism can improve children's literacy skills, compared to unilingual children.

A report by the Fraser Institute last month found that federal and provincial governments are spending $2.4 billion each year on official bilingualism. In Canada, managing the official policy of bilingualism has sometimes been a battle. But, could bilingualism be a case of getting your “bang for your buck”?

More evidence has been gathered to suggest that bilingualism helps out Canadian kids when it comes to literacy and other abilities. Researchers from Toronto’s York University show that bilingual children score better than unilingual children on some cognitive tests.

Generally, it doesn’t matter which two languages children learn, but children learning languages from the same “family” (such as Spanish and English) may have a slight advantage. These benefits may outweigh the lag in learning both languages bilingual children tend to exhibit.

The researchers studied more than 100 six-year-old kids. Among the study group were children who spoke only English and bilingual children of different combinations: Chinese-English, French-English and Spanish-English.

Tests measured verbal skills and non-verbal abilities, such as ability to pay attention and ability to switch focus. The bilingual children demonstrated a superior ability to switch tasks. The results of the study, written in part by psychologist, Ellen Bialystok, were published in the journal, Child Development.

Other benefits of bilingualism at an early age include literacy skills, as children develop a sounder understanding of the way languages are structured.

Another study, conducted by Judith Kroll at Penn State University found that bilingual people tended to be able to weed out irrelevant information better. They also tend to be better at multitasking.

The researchers tried to control for variables like socioeconomic class, culture, and migration history by choosing kids from public schools and similar socioeconomic histories.

Bilingualism is known to have other benefits. For instance, the cognitive benefits can delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease when compared to unilingual patients. One study published in Neurology, also written by Bialystok, suggests that Alzheimer’s in particular can be staved off by about four years.

The reason is that bilingualism benefits the executive control system of the brain. This system tends to weaken with age, but holds up longer in people speaking two or more languages.

"It is rather like a reserve tank in a car. When you run out of fuel, you can keep going for longer because there is a bit more in the safety tank,” said Bialystok around the time it was published.

According to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, about 28 per cent of Canadians knew two languages while 66 per cent knew only one in 2001. Six per cent knew three or more. By 2007, the mother tongue of a fifth of Canadians was neither English nor French and only 17 per cent were bilingual in English and French. According to Statistics Canada, young Canadians report a higher average of bilingualism—by age 21, 29 per cent of Canadians reported being able to converse in both English and French.