Bilingualism Can Strengthen a Child's Brain Into Adulthood, Study Shows

Girl Learning

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Key Takeaways

  • The bilingual brain has more integrity than the monolingual brain.
  • Speaking a second language is on par with learning a complex task like playing an instrument. 
  • Bilingualism can delay the onset of cognitive impairments like Alzheimer’s

A recent study has found that bilingualism has a positive effect on the brain’s structure. In researching exactly how bilingualism affects a child’s growing brain into adulthood, the study, published in Brain Structure and Function, examined the brains of participants aged 3 to 21 years old. Researchers explored whether the brains of those who speak multiple languages had more or less gray brain matter than those who only spoke one language.

This study is a significant one, as it sought to confirm the beliefs surrounding the intellect of a bilingual child. It is often believed that bilingual children are at a developmental disadvantage compared to their peers who only speak one language at home.

What the Study Found

The study results revealed that bilingual individuals had more substantial gray matter, as well as more integrity in their white matter. What does this indicate? The gray matter controls most daily functions, including motor skills and memory, and for most individuals, the gray matter increases in density until adolescence. For a bilingual person with more substantial gray matter, it could mean that their aging brain actually appears younger than that of a monolingual individual.

While the gray matter is the region associated with language, including learning and processing, the white brain matter also sees differences. MRIs have shown that white matter changes with the completion of complex tasks.

A 2010 study found that white matter of a bilingual brain has greater integrity than a monolingual brain, and that is because the task of understanding and speaking more than one language is not an easy feat. It makes sense that the white matter changes are similar to those of a musician playing an instrument for hours, or someone learning to juggle.

The impact on the subcortical structures of knowing a second language is not consistent and is more favorable for those who practice. In the recent study, the most significant changes in volume were seen in the brains of individuals who were regularly immersed in their second language.

The Results Dispel Myths 

The new findings defy previous misconceptions that bilingual children will have developmental delays or will not have a grasp on either language.

Sophie Niedermaier-Patramani, MD, a pediatrician who was raised in a bilingual household, explains, “It is true that bilingually raised children will start producing speech somewhat later than their peers, but this usually happens within the normal developmental windows. The ability to understand words and simple requests is usually developed at the same pace.” While a child may be slower to speak, their understanding will not suffer.

Sophie Niedermaier-Patramani, MD

Bilingualism helps them [children] to react quickly in difficult situations and develop strong communication skills.

— Sophie Niedermaier-Patramani, MD

Another myth is that bilingual children confuse languages. Niedermaier-Patramani says that this is false. “This misconception derives from the fact that bilingual children will initially often use both languages in one sentence. This is not caused by confusion but by the ability of bilingual children to float between the languages.” Once these children become more socialized, they begin to separate the languages.

The ability to differentiate and switch between languages demonstrates the problem-solving abilities tied to speaking multiple languages. “This, according to Niedermaier-Patramani, “helps them [children] to react quickly in difficult situations and develop strong communication skills.”

How Do These Findings Help Us?

The gray matter increase slows the aging of the brain, though, after some time, it may return back to baseline. This can explain the connections between bilingualism and Alzheimer’s disease. An Ecuadorian researcher compiled the findings of six studies from different countries, conducted over a 20-year span, and they all pointed to a later onset of dementias, including Alzheimer’s. This delay was shown to be about five years.

The benefits do not stop at dementia, and they extend to stroke sufferers as well. A 2016 study found that bilingualism contributed to less severe cognitive impairment following ischemic stroke—40.5% of bilingual individuals had normal cognitive functioning compared to just 19.6% of monolingual individuals. This is believed to be the result of a greater cognitive reserve.

The recent research not only supports the use of language immersion, but it also seeks to explain or upend misguided opinions about children and young adults who speak more than one language. They do not suffer any impediments because of trying to differentiate between each language. Instead, they are being challenged in a way that leads to steady growth and development of their brains.

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