New study: Bilingual children are smarter than those who only know one language
When my little girl was very little, her dad and I decided that we would speak both our native languages to her from the word go.
This was both a decision made because we wanted her to grow up feeling like she belonged in equal part to both countries (I am Norwegian, her father Irish), but also what felt most natural to us. Or more so to me, maybe. My husband doesn't speak any Norwegian, and much as my English is pretty much as fluent as you can get, when it came to being a mama and speaking to my own children, using my mother tongue was what felt the most natural to me. Maybe because we, as mothers, often use our own mothers as points of reference when we raise our own children.
Anyway, we were warned by some at the time that babies raised with two languages in the home sometimes are a little slower to start talking, as they have to mentally juggle to words for everything as opposed to just learning the one. I took to this warning pretty much the same way I do with most warnings and ignored it completely.
And it turns out we were right to. Not only was our little girl really early at talking and could pretty much hold a full-blown conversation by the time she was one and a half, she could also do so in both our languages. And today, both she and her three-and-a-half-year-younger brother are utterly fluent in both English and Norwegian, meaning they can chat to grandparents, play with friends and siblings and be able to fully function in both their home countries. Win-win.
Babies' brains develop faster when exposed to more than one language
And when it comes to teaching children languages, experts seem to agree that more is better, with studies showing that brains of babies exposed to more than one language develop better and faster than children surrounded by only one language. And this brain-boosting benefit of languages takes hold long before babies are even old enough to utter their own first words.
In fact, the latest study by researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle found the development actually starts by the time babies are 11 months old and are getting ready to say their first word. In an experiment, where babies were made listen to Spanish and English, which is common in America, researchers found that the area of the brain responsible for what is known as 'executive function' was more developed among babies in a bilingual home than one with just one language.
What this means, according to the experts, is that because executive function is essentially the brain's control room, from which it organises the rest of the brain, children who have a more developed 'executive function' have better learning capabilities, problem-solving, memory and other skills.
Similar studies done in the UK showed that second or third-generation immigrants, who may learn English alongside Asian languages or, increasingly, East European languages, also have this benefit.
In a study published in the journal Developmental Science, Naja Ferjan Ramirez of the university's Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) looked at 16 infants aged 11 months, half from bilingual homes and half from monolingual ones.
The result? The bilingual babies showed stronger responses in the prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, which largely govern executive function.