The Brain of the Bilingual Learner

A few decades ago, it was believed that becoming bilingual at a young age would confuse children and impair language development in their home language. Research over the years has shown quite the opposite; there are significant benefits to children learning multiple languages. So what is happening in the brains of these young language learners that leads to these benefits?

An article on Bilingual Brains by Dr. Judy Willis, a neurologist and teacher whose research influenced the development of GrapeSEED, highlights the research of Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian psychologist and professor concentrating on bilingualism and cognitive development in children. Bialystok compared the brain scans of 6-years olds from bilingual and monolingual homes and found that higher levels of executive function (the management of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, problem solving, planning and execution) could be seen in the fMRI scans of the bilingual children’s brains. These scans showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the frontal lobe associated with thinking and awareness and also where Broca’s area, linked to speech production and language comprehension, is located.

Dr. Willis goes on to explain that the interpretations of researchers, such as Bialystok, “suggest the bilingual brain is highly engaged in the cognitive challenge of evaluating between the two competing language systems. This requires executive function attention selecting and focusing on the language being used while intentionally inhibiting the activity of the competing language system.” So in other words, the bilingual children must use their brain to filter out the language that is not in use and deliberately focus on the one that is. Then, she says, “Their brains need to evaluate and determine not only the meaning of words, but also which patterns of sentence structure and grammar apply and recognize nuances of pronunciation unique to the language of focus.” Monolingual speakers do not have these extra steps in processing the language. The exercise in executive function that these bilingual children perform when they are switching between languages gives their brain a great workout! And as a result, the bilingual children scored higher on cognitive testing than their monolingual peers.

Another study that looked at neuroimages of bilingual speakers found that their posterior supramarginal gyrus, the area of the brain associated with vocabulary acquisition, had more gray matter density than monolingual speakers, signaling that the brain is growing – “bilingualism actually reshapes the brain.” The following image shows the gray matter density in bilingual learners.

brain scan shows bilingual learning increases intelligence

This is more proof that the brain is plastic, as we learned in Neuroplasticity and Practice Blaze the Way for Learning Success, and that stimulating our young learners’ neural networks with focused practice can strengthen their cell pathways and help promote literacy development! So give your English as a Second Language (ESL)  and English language learners a good brain workout, let them know their brain is growing as they learn, and watch them grow in oral language skills, literacy, and confidence.

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