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NALDIC – Multilingual Language Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Please follow the link to find out more about this research…

Are you a #multilingual family in the UK or Ireland? How is the #lockdown affecting your children’s use of English and their other language(s)?

Take part in this collaborative research project to help us learn. Includes opportunity to enter a prize draw

— naldic (@EAL_naldic) April 20, 2020

Resources to support learning at home

These resources are for families to use at home. One file is for nursery/primary age, with some links relevant for babies/toddlers. Another is for secondary age. The third came from Peterhead ASL team who were happy for it to be shared. These resources will be helpful for bilingual families, but most will helpful for all families.

There are a range of activities with some links to translated information and resources that can help families.

Aberdeenshire EAL – Resources to support learning while at home – Primary & Nursery

Aberdeenshire EAL – Resources to support learning while at home – Secondary

ASL Ideas (002) from Peterhead ASL

Supporting Bilingual Children

 by: Irene Fafalios

This is an excerpt from a lecture given by Irene Fafalios at the Montessori Society AGM in London

What do we mean by bilingualism? Simply defined a bilingual person would be one who has the ability to speak two languages. I could further qualify this initial definition, by saying that a bilingual person is one who has been exposed to two languages from birth. But a bilingual person is also one who has immigrated to, or chosen to settle in another country and has had to learn a second language later on in life. A bilingual family is one in which at least one member has a different mother tongue from the others. Irene explains the different forms that bilingualism takes in today’s multicultural society and how as teachers and parents we can support children who speak more than one language.

But again there are many instances – for both parents may speak the same language which is different from the language their child is becoming proficient in at school, or, the two parents may have two different native languages, and perhaps communicate using a third language. According to Jim Cummins, bilingual education exists when two languages are used as a means of instruction, in order to attain proficiency in one language. When this proficiency is obtained, then bilingual education is stopped. However, there is also bilingual education, which is in fact instruction primarily or exclusively in one language, in order to maintain both!

Bilingualism has to do with language, of course. Language is not just something that has to do with the neural pathways that connect the linguistic centres of our brain – language touches our very identity. As Montessorians, we know that we become that which we absorb in those first three years of life. The language we are exposed to as infants clearly provides us with an identity that goes well beyond images and experiences or linguistic skills. In absorbing a language we are not just absorbing a way of communicating. In absorbing a language, we become a member of our human group. Our mother tongue is laden not only with all our mother’s being and emotions, it is also our native tongue – belonging to a particular people, a particular community – and is therefore laden with all their beings, their histories, their tragedies, their triumphs. Our language not only expresses our emotions, but it is also our emotions. Our language is our heritage. In assuming a language, we are taking on a heritage. In continuing and developing this heritage we are continuing and developing, in fact, a language and together with that language – ourselves!

It is therefore important that as teachers and parents we are aware of one or two factors, which will explain the child’s behaviour towards us and will, in turn, determine our behaviour towards the child. Broadly speaking, we could say that there are two main categories of bilinguals:

The Elitist Bilingual is one who speaks English and French…. English and German – who by being bilingual attains social status and prestige, has great social advantages, opportunities and access to universities and prestigious jobs. For this person, bilingualism is a very positive factor: since two languages, exposes the individual to two cultures, two literary traditions and hence to a huge wealth of cultural and moral ideas – ideally making of the individual a far more tolerant, flexible and adaptable person. Greater interpersonal and communication skills are acquired, thereby raising the individual’s confidence and self-esteem.

The Non-Elitist Bilingual is the migrant, the refugee asylum seeker, the one stricken by poverty, illness, high birth rates, poor education – people who are socially excluded precisely because of the two languages they command. Children of these families realize, that their own family and home culture serves as a handicap. They feel increasingly excluded, and negative feelings about themselves, their background and their origins, are reinforced by the wider community – the dominant society. This lack of self-esteem and confidence becomes apparent early on in their school performance and their gradual withdrawal and disinterest are reflected in their low academic achievements.

We see, therefore, that it is not bilingualism per se which is the disadvantage, but it is the peripheral society’s attitude that influences our perception of specific bilingual situations. The bilingual child is seen as one who has great advantages if the two languages it speaks are French and English, but not so if it speaks Greek and Albanian. Children who speak two languages and who feel accepted by both cultures will identify with both. However, when the two cultures have unfriendly relations, then it is often the case that children are instead shunned by both cultures. This, however, is not a bilingual issue – it is clearly a political issue with distinct social and psychological repercussions for the bilingual individual.

Schools can play a very important role, in offering both children – but particularly the non-elitist bilingual – the sort of support required to raise self-esteem, provide a sense of self-worth and confidence that will enable them to survive and succeed in a seemingly hostile society. As teachers, we need to confront our own experiences, feelings and prejudices on these issues, for they unconsciously creep into the classroom and very subtly colour our interactions with various children. Our awareness and sensitivity to our own reactions and to those experienced by the children in our care is crucial if we are to provide each individual and his or her family with the sort of help and support that they might need.

One of the primary concerns of parents, who find themselves in a bilingual situation, is the question of whether they should continue to speak the home language to their child. The truth is that there have been many attempts in the past, to convey the message that the bilingual child is at a clear disadvantage. People felt that bilingualism caused linguistic handicaps, emotional conflicts and cognitive confusion in children. So there were many attempts to prevent children from speaking their home language either in school or at home, on the grounds that this was detrimental to their development and to the nation at large.

The first thing we need to convey to parents is that bilingualism is not a pathology – it actually seems to do you good! So long as a supportive environment affirms a child’s identity, then research indicates that bilingualism can positively affect both intellectual and linguistic progress and that there are distinct cognitive, communicative and cultural advantages to having access to two linguistic systems. It seems that bilingual children show a greater sensitivity to linguistic meanings, may be more flexible in their thinking and show greater analytical and problem-solving skills. This conceptual development in two languages allows the transference of academic skills across two languages and enables young children to acquire an awareness of the structure and function of language itself.

What we can do as teachers, is to encourage and help parents find a fixed pattern for language use in the home, for this makes things much easier both for the children learning the languages and for the adults in their day to day life with two (or more) languages.

One such pattern is One Parent One Language: where the two parents each speak two different native languages and each consistently speaks their own native language to the children. Emphasis must be given to the words ‘native’ and ‘consistently’. Consistency is of the utmost importance, so that children may have a clear idea who speaks which language and to whom. Bearing in mind what we know about the child and his sensitive periods for order and language in the first six years of life, this should not surprise us. For me, it is the most efficient and efficacious model for all concerned.

Another pattern could be The Minority Language at Home or The Foreign-Home Pattern where everyone speaks the minority (non-community) language at home and the community language outside. This also is a very good pattern to recommend to parents – it is simple, clear and functional.

In a bilingual family, the parents will certainly have to invest time in sustaining an equally strong and rich linguistic environment in terms of songs, stories, riddles, tales, jokes and tapes. It is important that the child receives the same type and degree of linguistic stimulation in both languages, where possible. Above all, however, it is important that the family enjoys its bilingualism. No child should be coerced into speaking a language when it does not wish to. Asking children to say something in a certain language for a guest to hear is humiliating and embarrassing. A bilingual family is nothing special and is increasingly less of a phenomenon. A child should see it as a natural part of his family life. It is then far more likely that children will grow up enjoying being bilingual and that both languages will be kept active.

The significance of keeping the home language alive is apparent in recent research that shows how the development of this first home language, helps the development of a second or third language. In the past, it was thought that if the child is not proficient in the language of instruction, i.e. English, then more time should be given to learning English and less time to his home language. However, research shows that in order to gain greater proficiency in the language of instruction, it is best to sustain and support the home language. This is because of cross-language transfer, where skills, knowledge and cognitive strategies that a child has, are transferred between the first and second language – by acquiring and developing one language well, the child gains a universal understanding of language that makes it much easier for him to learn and become proficient in a second or additional languages. But what do we mean when we talk about ‘proficiency’ in a language? We have two levels of language acquisition that are relevant to bilingualism:

Rapid Language Development– Social English

In this instance, the speaker learns the surface language patterns and can, within a very short period of time – usually one to two years – sound like a native speaker. This informal, superficial language skill, in which short, simple sentence structures are predominant, is what is also referred to as ‘conversational’, ‘playground’ or Social English. Social English requires a smaller vocabulary than Academic English. Children use Social English with peers and adults in relaxed, playful, informal situations. It is the first type of English that we hear our young English Learners use, and it is important for teachers to remember that each child will develop this skill at his or her own pace.

Academic Language Development– Academic English

Studies have shown that it takes school-age bilingual children five to seven years to master Academic English that requires longer, more complex sentence structures as well as a larger vocabulary than Social English. It is important for us teachers to remember this time factor so that when we come to assess language development, we do not immediately label this child as having language difficulties or disorders.

So far we have given emphasis on the importance of supporting and maintaining the home language, throughout a child’s education, for better acquisition and proficiency in the language of instruction. However, we should make it clear that our aim should never be to have a totally balanced bilingual person – there is no such thing. There is always a dominant language, which may also be expressed by the use of different languages in different contexts.

The relationship between first and second language development and learning is never one where the two are equal. Although it seems that the key factor in the acquisition of bilingualism is the age of exposure to the two languages and the type or extent of exposure to each language, it is very difficult to develop the same skills in both languages.

There are three ways to acquire and develop a second language:

Simultaneous Bilingualism applies to children who are exposed and who develop both languages more or less, at the same time. The pattern of language acquisition that such a child follows is very similar to a child who learns each language separately i.e. it follows the usual path of language development.

In bilingual preschools, the ideal would be to have native speakers for both languages spoken, thereby reflecting and supporting what is going on at home. We need to be aware of how important it is to model appropriate language for children at this stage. We need to listen patiently to attempts the child makes to express himself verbally, and be aware of how sensitive bilingual children are of mistakes they make or might make.

We need to provide children with opportunities for appropriate use of specific language, both in group situations and on a one to one basis with friends. A mixed age group is ideal for exposing children to a variety of opportunities for language use be it in conversation with one another, where they can express their feelings and explore their ideas in both languages, or be it in activities that children organise themselves. Children who are reluctant to speak are sometimes more forthcoming if we organise games where they can imitate or repeat what someone says.

Successive Bilingualism applies to children whose home language is well established and they learn the second language when they come to school. Children acquiring a second language generally go through the following four stages of language acquisition. [3]Being aware of this model helps us have reasonable expectations of children.

1. The child who enters the preschool understanding hardly any English, will either stop talking altogether and use nonverbal ways of communicating, or he will use his home language, which may not be understood by others but which is his only means of communication. Eventually, of course, children no longer use their home language with those who do not understand it. However, it appears that continued use and development of the child’s home language, will benefit children as they acquire English. For this reason, we should not discourage parents from using the home language at home during this time.

2. Children then go through a Silent or nonverbal period. This stage can last from one to twelve months. If we are not aware of this stage, we might think that the child is having difficulties and consider professional intervention. This silence, however, is the silence we find in the young infant, who is still absorbing his language, prior to speaking it – where an understanding of the language precedes his ability to use it. During this silence, a lot of listening is taking place, as well as acute observation of the gestures, sounds, facial expressions etc. that accompany any language. The child is trying to make sense and find meaning in this jumble of sounds and movements. If children find themselves in a safe, secure situation they will gradually start making a few attempts at speaking – combining gestures and facial expressions.

The role of the adult at this stage is to ‘let the child be’. We need to ensure that the child finds himself in a linguistically rich environment where things are being said, exchanged, explained, sung, read, written and recounted, so that children may absorb all the sounds, structures, words, gestures etc. that they require. I have found that using images and materials to reinforce what is being said, a lot of pointing and dramatic gestures etc. all help to convey meaning to a child who is able to understand in fact, much more than what he can say. We must respect this creative silence since we know full well that although voiceless, the child is creating his new voice, and with that will also come his identity.

3. The next phase begins when children start cracking the code of this new language, usually in a telegraphic or formulaic way i.e. they will use a few words, or phrases without understanding how they really function in order to communicate mainly action, possession or location e.g. ‘me home’ ‘I like…’ ‘Gimme…’ ‘I want… ‘. We respond to these efforts, by showing we understand and by verbalizing the complete phrase of what the child is saying. We help by repeatedly giving him these formulaic phrases, which he will quickly pick up and which will serve to communicate to others his basic needs and feelings.

4. Finally, the child comes to the Fluid Language phase, where he is able to use his second language like all surface users i.e. he becomes proficient in Social English. We find children are constantly experimenting in the use, form, sound, purpose and intent of both languages. They love to play with language and we should not worry about this trial and error phase. On the contrary, we need to support and encourage the child’s attempts at speaking, accepting all the mistakes made in pronunciation, syntax and expression but ensuring that we respond using the language correctly. We help by giving all the appropriate names of objects, emphasizing key words in sentences, repeating important words in context and coordinating, where necessary, actions with language, so that we may optimize the child’s understanding capabilities, thereby enhancing his self-esteem.

Receptive Bilingualism refers to children who are able to understand two languages but express themselves in only one. These are children, who have been exposed to the language prior to coming to school, through television for example, or through older siblings who may be learning English in school and may speak it amongst themselves. This is a fairly common experience for many children, although they are not considered fully bilingual.

As preschool teachers, we can support parents in their work, by being aware of the different languages spoken in our environment and finding ways in which we can include these languages in our daily exchanges, without confusing our three to six year olds. We can make children aware of the languages within their school community, simply by naming them. We can encourage children to say a word – a greeting – a song – in their home language – or we can talk about a culture which a specific child can relate to – and there we often see that the child’s initial embarrassment, is coupled with a sense of pride and joy.

In all instances and across all age groups we need to show our children through our behaviour (and not through sermons) that cultural diversity enriches our interactions and enhances our existence. Bilingualism does not cause language or identity problems. The way we manage bilingualism, however, is what causes the problems. We really need to rethink and reassess the messages that our children are receiving. The microcosm of the school – the learning community – is one place where we can affect societal attitudes as regards the bilingual child, and “inferior” or “superior” cultures. We need to start talking not so much about bilingual people, but about bilingual environments.

Montessori schools can play a very important role in helping individuals and communities find their identities, and become strong. We have an educational system based on respect for all living things. One way we reflect and convey that respect to our young learners is by encouraging them to discover the immense diversity that makes up our planet. All of life’s manifestations however great, or small reflect a diversity that is awesome. We need to cultivate and encourage in our children an attitude which does not stand in fear, but which welcomes such diversity. Such an attitude is generated, once my own little world, myself, my family, my family’s history, has found a safe place within me. Once that is secure, I can easily accommodate other little worlds, other selves, other families, other families’ histories.

Keeping home languages alive key to English success for newcomer kids

A language workshop for parents in northeast Calgary is highlighting the many benefits of keeping home languages alive and encouraging parents to pass on their spoken language to their kids.

The workshop was organized by the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Public Library’s Saddletowne branch.

“The program came out of research into keeping the home language alive and the importance of it,” said Melanie Wong, a CBE strategist whose focus is English-language learners.

Wong says research shows maintaining first languages improves children’s self-esteem and sense of cultural identity while helping kids succeed in the English school system.

“Sometimes English is the priority because they want to integrate into society, but what we’re finding is that first language is still key,” Wong said.

The CBE’s Melanie Wong says evidence shows that kids who learn their home language as well as English are more successful in school, especially when it comes to excelling in English. She encourages parents to read, write, sing and even joke at home in their own language. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“It’s really important because we do notice that the academic gains are better at school when they do have that first language,” said Wong, adding kids who keep up their first language see improved literacy and success in English.

But Wong says there’s also a stigma for some kids around learning and speaking their home language.

Many in the English school system can feel embarrassed to speak their first language once they learn English.

“Once we try to encourage them to speak our home language but they try to avoid it because of the accent issue,” said parent Getu Admasu, who moved to Calgary from Ethiopia in 2001.

Parents like Getu Admasu, who came to Calgary from Ethiopia, say it’s often a challenge to get their kids to learn their home language. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“If mom and dad speak their own language at home, the kids will learn. But if we are switching to English, there is no point,” said Admasu.

Admasu says he uses posters in the house with words and phrases in the two languages beside each other, setting his kids a daily target of words to learn to encourage them.

Many parents want their kids to learn their first language to communicate with friends and relatives and maintain strong ties to their culture.

“I’m very interested to keep my home language alive with my kid,” said Chhabi Raval.

Many parents, like Chhabi Raval, want their kids to learn their language in addition to English to keep them connected to their culture, traditions and family. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“I want to know how I continue with it because for me it is very important for him to know what language I speak and his grandparents speak. I value it,” said Raval.

“It is very much a challenge. They are small right now so they don’t know but it is something we should give them,” said Raval, who says she doesn’t want her children to miss out.

The workshop included time for parents to play with their kids, encouraging them to use their home language, using books and playing with toys.

The workshop was the first of its kind in Calgary. The CBE says it’s looking at more opportunities at other libraries in the future.

Bilingual quick tips in 18 languages


Check out this article with free downloaded material:

We have produced a series of bilingual quick tips for parents and practitioners to help children develop good talking and listening skills. There are lots of different languages.

The following tips are available in English and space for your own translation.  Copies can be downloaded and photocopied free of charge to share with families.

Quick tips – say hello to your new baby

Talking to your baby from day one will help the two of you get to know each other, and gives your child a great start in life. These quick tips will help you enjoy “conversations” with your baby right from the start.

Quick tips – dummies and talking

Babies and young children like to suck, so dummies can help soothe at bedtime or when your baby is tired or cross. But regular and extended use of a dummy can create problems with your child’s speech. For more information download a copy of our quick tips below.

Quick tips – talk to your baby and child in your own language

The best way to help your child learn to talk is to talk to him as much as possible in your own language – it doesn’t have to be English.

Quick tips – making the most of television

Like adults, young children sometimes feel tired or stressed and want to relax by watching television. Used in the right way, television can be beneficial. But too much can be harmful, so use our quick tips to help find the right balance.

Quick tips – talking with your baby

Learning to talk is one of the most important and complex skills your child will accomplish. Talking helps your baby’s brain develop and is the foundation of literacy. It seems to happen naturally, but in fact you have a very important role to play.

Quick tips – sharing songs and rhymes

Babies and young children love songs and rhymes, especially hearing the sound of your voice. And they’re a great way to help your child’s talking and listening skills. Take a look at the quick tips below.

Quick tips – sharing books with your baby

Sharing books is a wonderful way to help your child learn to talk and hear new words, and it’s the ideal opportunity to share a cuddle at the same time.

Quick tips – playing with your baby

Play is the main way that babies and toddlers learn about the world. With your help, it’s also a wonderful way to support their language development. Find out how by downloading our quick tips.

Practitioners and professionals working with learners whose first language is not English should develop a good understanding of the child’s linguistic and cultural background when they enter a nursery or school and work collaboratively with families.

Amazing benefits of being bilingual

In a cafe in south London, two construction workers are engaged in cheerful banter, tossing words back and forth. Their cutlery dances during more emphatic gesticulations and they occasionally break off into loud guffaws. They are discussing a woman, that much is clear, but the details are lost on me. It’s a shame, because their conversation looks fun and interesting, especially to a nosy person like me. But I don’t speak their language.

Out of curiosity, I interrupt them to ask what they are speaking. With friendly smiles, they both switch easily to English, explaining that they are South Africans and had been speaking Xhosa. In Johannesburg, where they are from, most people speak at least five languages, says one of them, Theo Morris. For example, Theo’s mother’s language is Sotho, his father’s is Zulu, he learned Xhosa and Ndebele from his friends and neighbours, and English and Afrikaans at school. “I went to Germany before I came here, so I also speak German,” he adds.

Was it easy to learn so many languages?

“Yes, it’s normal,” he laughs.

He’s right. Around the world, more than half of people – estimates vary from 60 to 75 per cent – speak at least two languages. Many countries have more than one official national language – South Africa has 11. People are increasingly expected to speak, read and write at least one of a handful of “super” languages, such as English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish or Arabic, as well. So to be monolingual, as many native English speakers are, is to be in the minority, and perhaps to be missing out.

Multilingualism has been shown to have many social, psychological and lifestyle advantages. Moreover, researchers are finding a swathe of health benefits from speaking more than one language, including faster stroke recovery and delayed onset of dementia.

At the current rate, half our languages will be extinct by the end of the century

Could it be that the human brain evolved to be multilingual – that those who speak only one language are not exploiting their full potential? And in a world that is losing languages faster than ever – at the current rate of one a fortnight, half our languages will be extinct by the end of the century – what will happen if the current rich diversity of languages disappears and most of us end up speaking only one?

(Credit: Getty Images)

As adults, we try desperately to decipher a foreign tongue – but we may learn quicker if we stop looking for patterns that aren’t there (Credit: Getty Images)

I am sitting in a laboratory, headphones on, looking at pictures of snowflakes on a computer. As each pair of snowflakes appears, I hear a description of one of them through the headphones. All I have to do is decide which snowflake is being described. The only catch is that the descriptions are in a completely invented language called Syntaflake.

It’s part of an experiment by Panos Athanasopoulos, an ebullient Greek with a passion for languages. Professor of psycholinguistics and bilingual cognition at Lancaster University, he’s at the forefront of a new wave of research into the bilingual mind. As you might expect, his lab is a Babel of different nationalities and languages – but no one here grew up speaking Syntaflake.

The task is profoundly strange and incredibly difficult. Usually, when interacting in a foreign language, there are clues to help you decipher the meaning. The speaker might point to the snowflake as they speak, use their hands to demonstrate shapes or their fingers to count out numbers, for example. Here I have no such clues and, it being a made-up language, I can’t even rely on picking up similarities to languages I already know.

After a time, though, I begin to feel a pattern might be emerging with the syntax and sounds. I decide to be mathematical about it and get out pen and paper to plot any rules that emerge, determined not to “fail” the test.

The experience reminds me of a time I arrived in a rural town a few hours outside Beijing and was forced to make myself understood in a language I could neither speak nor read, among people for whom English was similarly alien. But even then, there had been clues… Now, without any accompanying human interaction, the rules governing the sounds I’m hearing remain elusive, and at the end of the session I have to admit defeat.

I join Athanasopoulos for a chat while my performance is being analysed by his team.

Glumly, I recount my difficulties at learning the language, despite my best efforts. But it appears that was where I went wrong: “The people who perform best on this task are the ones who don’t care at all about the task and just want to get it over as soon as possible. Students and teaching staff who try to work it out and find a pattern always do worst,” he says.

“It’s impossible in the time given to decipher the rules of the language and make sense of what’s being said to you. But your brain is primed to work it out subconsciously. That’s why, if you don’t think about it, you’ll do okay in the test – children do the best.”

(Credit: Getty Images)

Language is intimately connected to culture and politics (Credit: Getty Images)

The first words ever uttered may have been as far back as 250,000 years ago, once our ancestors stood up on two legs and freed the ribcage from weight-bearing tasks, allowing fine nerve control of breathing and pitch to develop. And when humans had got one language, it wouldn’t have been long before we had many.

Language evolution can be compared to biological evolution, but whereas genetic change is driven by environmental pressures, languages change and develop through social pressures. Over time, different groups of early humans would have found themselves speaking different languages. Then, in order to communicate with other groups – for trade, travel and so on – it would have been necessary for some members of a family or band to speak other tongues.

We can get some sense of how prevalent multilingualism may have been from the few hunter-gatherer peoples who survive today. “If you look at modern hunter-gatherers, they are almost all multilingual,” says Thomas Bak, a cognitive neurologist who studies the science of languages at the University of Edinburgh. “The rule is that one mustn’t marry anyone in the same tribe or clan to have a child – it’s taboo. So every single child’s mum and dad speak a different language.”

In Aboriginal Australia, where more than 130 indigenous languages are still spoken, multilingualism is part of the landscape. “You will be walking and talking with someone, and then you might cross a small river and suddenly your companion will switch to another language,” says Bak. “People speak the language of the earth.” This is true elsewhere, too. “Consider in Belgium: you take a train in Liège, the announcements are in French first. Then, pass through Loewen, where the announcements will be in Dutch first, and then in Brussels it reverts back to French first.”

The connection with culture and geography is why Athanasopoulos invented a new language for the snowflake test. Part of his research lies in trying to tease out the language from the culture it is threaded within, he explains.

Being so bound up with identity, language is also deeply political. The emergence of European nation states and the growth of imperialism during the 19th century meant it was regarded as disloyal to speak anything other than the one national language. This perhaps contributed to the widely held opinion – particularly in Britain and the US – that bringing up children to be bilingual was harmful to their health and to society more generally.

There were warnings that bilingual children would be confused by two languages, have lower intelligence and behave in deviant ways

There were warnings that bilingual children would be confused by two languages, have lower intelligence, low self-esteem, behave in deviant ways, develop a split personality and even become schizophrenic. It is a view that persisted until very recently, discouraging many immigrant parents from using their own mother tongue to speak to their children, for instance. This is in spite of a 1962 experiment, ignored for decades, which showed that bilingual children did better than monolinguals in both verbal and non-verbal intelligence tests.

However, research in the last decade by neurologists, psychologists and linguists, using the latest brain-imaging tools, is revealing a swathe of cognitive benefits for bilinguals. It’s all to do with how our ever-flexible minds learn to multitask.

Split personality

Ask me in English what my favourite food is, and I will picture myself in London choosing from the options I enjoy there. But ask me in French, and I transport myself to Paris, where the options I’ll choose from are different. So the same deeply personal question gets a different answer depending on the language in which you’re asking me. This idea that you gain a new personality with every language you speak, that you act differently when speaking different languages, is a profound one.

Athanasopoulos and his colleagues have been studying the capacity for language to change people’s perspectives. In one experiment, English and German speakers were shown videos of people moving, such as a woman walking towards her car or a man cycling to the supermarket. English speakers focus on the action and typically describe the scene as “a woman is walking” or “a man is cycling”. German speakers, on the other hand, have a more holistic worldview and will include the goal of the action: they might say (in German) “a woman walks towards her car” or “a man cycles towards the supermarket”.

Part of this is due to the grammatical toolkit available, Athanasopoulos explains. Unlike German, English has the -ing ending to describe actions that are ongoing. This makes English speakers much less likely than German speakers to assign a goal to an action when describing an ambiguous scene. When he tested English–German bilinguals, however, whether they were action- or goal-focused depended on which country they were tested in. If the bilinguals were tested in Germany, they were goal-focused; in England, they were action-focused, no matter which language was used, showing how intertwined culture and language can be in determining a person’s worldview.

In the 1960s, one of the pioneers of psycholinguistics, Susan Ervin-Tripp, tested Japanese–English bilingual women, asking them to finish sentences in each language. She found that the women ended the sentences very differently depending on which language was used. For example, “When my wishes conflict with my family…” was completed in Japanese as “it is a time of great unhappiness”; in English, as “I do what I want”. Another example was “Real friends should…”, which was completed as “help each other” in Japanese and “be frank” in English.

Many bilinguals say they feel like a different person when they speak their other language

From this, Ervin-Tripp concluded that human thought takes place within language mindsets, and that bilinguals have different mindsets for each language – an extraordinary idea but one that has been borne out in subsequent studies, and many bilinguals say they feel like a different personwhen they speak their other language.

These different mindsets are continually in conflict, however, as bilingual brains sort out which language to use.

In a revealing experiment with his English-German bilingual group, Athanasopoulos got them to recite strings of numbers out loud in either German or English. This effectively “blocked” the other language altogether, and when they were shown the videos of movement, the bilinguals’ descriptions were more action- or goal-focused depending on which language had been blocked. So, if they recited numbers in German, their responses to the videos were more typically German and goal-focused. When the number recitation was switched to the other language midway, their video responses also switched.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Searching for a word in one language – while suppressing the corresponding word in another – gently taxes the brain, helping to train our concentration (Credit: Getty Images)

So what’s going on? Are there really two separate minds in a bilingual brain? That’s what the snowflake experiment was designed to find out. I’m a little nervous of what my fumbling performance will reveal about me, but Athanasopoulos assures me I’m similar to others who have been tested – and so far, we seem to be validating his theory.

In order to assess the effect that trying to understand the Syntaflake language had on my brain, I took another test before and after the snowflake task. In these so-called flanker tasks, patterns of arrows appeared on the screen and I had to press the left or right button according to the direction of the arrow in the centre. Sometimes the surrounding pattern of arrows was confusing, so by the end of the first session my shoulders had been hunched somewhere near my ears and I was exhausted from concentrating. It’s not a task in which practice improves performance (most people actually do worse second time round), but when I did the same test again after completing the snowflake task, I was significantly better at it, just as Athanasopoulos has predicted.

How to learn 30 languages

So-called “hyper-polyglots”, like Alex Rawlings mentioned in this story, have learnt to speak at least 10 languages. They claim that anyone could learn their skills if only you take the right approach. To learn more, read our in-depth feature article here.

“Learning the new language improved your performance second time around,” he explains. Relieved as I am to fit into the normal range, it’s a curious result. How can that be?

The flanker tasks were exercises in cognitive conflict resolution – if most of the arrows were pointing to the left, my immediate impulse was to push the left button, but this wasn’t the correct response if the central arrow was pointing right. I had to block out my impulse and heed the rule instead. Another example of cognitive conflict is a test in which the names of colours are written in different colours (“blue” written in red, for example). The aim is to say which colour each word is written in, but this is tricky, because we read the word much quicker than we process the colour of the letters. It requires considerable mental effort to ignore the impulse just to say the word we can’t help but read.

The part of the brain that manages this supreme effort is known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), part of the “executive system”. Located on the frontal lobe, it is a toolbox of mental attention skills that enables us to concentrate on one task while blocking out competing information, and allows us to switch focus between different tasks without becoming confused. It is the executive system that tells us to go when we see a green light and stop for a red, and it is the same system that tells us to ignore the meaning of the word we read but concentrate on the colour of the letters.

The snowflake test prepared my ACC for the second flanker task, just as speaking more than one language seems to train the executive system more generally. A steady stream of studies over the past decade has shown that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in a range of cognitive and social tasks from verbal and nonverbal tests to how well they can read other people. Greater empathy is thought to be because bilinguals are better at blocking out their own feelings and beliefs in order to concentrate on the other person’s.

“Bilinguals perform these tasks much better than monolinguals – they are faster and more accurate,” says Athanasopoulos. And that suggests their executive systems are different from monolinguals’.

Mental muscles

In fact, says cognitive neuropsychologist Jubin Abutalebi, at the University of San Raffaele in Milan, it is possible to distinguish bilingual people from monolinguals simply by looking at scans of their brains. “Bilingual people have significantly more grey matter than monolinguals in their anterior cingulate cortex, and that is because they are using it so much more often,” he says. The ACC is like a cognitive muscle, he adds: the more you use it, the stronger, bigger and more flexible it gets.

Bilinguals, it turns out, exercise their executive control all the time because their two languages are constantly competing for attention. Brain-imaging studies show that when a bilingual person is speaking in one language, their ACC is continually suppressing the urge to use words and grammar from their other language. Not only that, but their mind is always making a judgement about when and how to use the target language. For example, bilinguals rarely get confused between languages, but they may introduce the odd word or sentence of the other language if the person they are talking to also knows it.

“My mother tongue is Polish but my wife is Spanish so I also speak Spanish, and we live in Edinburgh so we also speak English,” says Thomas Bak. “When I am talking to my wife in English, I will sometimes use Spanish words, but I never accidentally use Polish. And when I am speaking to my wife’s mother in Spanish, I never accidentally introduce English words because she doesn’t understand them. It’s not something I have to think about, it’s automatic, but my executive system is working very hard to inhibit the other languages.”

For bilinguals, with their exceptionally buff executive control, the flanker test is just a conscious version of what their brains do subconsciously all day long – it’s no wonder they are good at it.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Speaking a second language can help forestall the symptoms of dementia (Credit: Getty Images)

A superior ability to concentrate, solve problems and focus, better mental flexibility and multitasking skills are, of course, valuable in everyday life. But perhaps the most exciting benefit of bilingualism occurs in ageing, when executive function typically declines: bilingualism seems to protect against dementia.

Psycholinguist Ellen Bialystok made the surprising discovery at York University in Toronto while she was comparing an ageing population of monolinguals and bilinguals.

“The bilinguals showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s some four to five years after monolinguals with the same disease pathology,” she says.

Being bilingual didn’t prevent people from getting dementia, but it delayed its effects, so in two people whose brains showed similar amounts of disease progression, the bilingual would show symptoms an average of five years after the monolingual. Bialystok thinks this is because bilingualism rewires the brain and improves the executive system, boosting people’s “cognitive reserve”. It means that as parts of the brain succumb to damage, bilinguals can compensate more because they have extra grey matter and alternative neural pathways.

“Bilinguals use their frontal processors for tasks that monolinguals don’t and so these processors become reinforced and better in the frontal lobe. And this is used to compensate during degeneration of the middle parts of the brain,” Bialystok explains. However, it is no good simply to have learned a little French at school. The effect depends on how often you use your bilingual skill. “The more you use it, the better,” she says, “but there’s no breaking point, it’s a continuum.”

Bilingualism can also offer protection after brain injury. In a recent study of 600 stroke survivors in India, Bak discovered that cognitive recovery was twice as likely for bilinguals as for monolinguals.

Such results suggest bilingualism helps keep us mentally fit. It may even be an advantage that evolution has positively selected for in our brains – an idea supported by the ease with which we learn new languages and flip between them, and by the pervasiveness of bilingualism throughout world history. Just as we need to do physical exercise to maintain the health of bodies that evolved for a physically active hunter-gatherer lifestyle, perhaps we ought to start doing more cognitive exercises to maintain our mental health, especially if we only speak one language.

In recent years, there has been a backlash against the studies showing benefits from bilingualism. Some researchers tried and failed to replicate some of the results; others questioned the benefits of improved executive function in everyday life. Bak wrote a rejoinder to the published criticisms, and says there is now overwhelming evidence from psychological experiments backed by imaging studies that bilingual and monolingual brains function differently. He says the detractors have made errors in their experimental methods.

One estimate puts the value of knowing a second language at up to $128,000 over 40 years

Bialystok agrees, adding that it is impossible to examine whether bilingualism improves a child’s school exam results because there are so many confounding factors. But, she says, “given that at the very least it makes no difference – and no study has ever shown it harms performance – considering the very many social and cultural benefits to knowing another language, bilingualism should be encouraged”. As for the financial benefits, one estimate puts the value of knowing a second language at up to $128,000 over 40 years.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Immersing children in a second language may help benefit their performance in all subjects (Credit: Getty Images)

The result of my test in Athanasopoulos’s lab suggests that just 45 minutes of trying to understand another language can improve cognitive function. His study is not yet complete, but other research has shown that these benefits of learning a language can be achieved quickly. The problem is, they disappear again unless they are used – and I am unlikely to use the made-up snowflake language ever again! Learning a new language is not the only way to improve executive function – playing video games, learning a musical instrument, even certain card games can help – but because we use language all the time, it’s probably the best executive-function exerciser there is. So how can this knowledge be applied in practice?

One option is to teach children in different languages. In many parts of the world, this is already being done: many Indian children, for example, will use a different language in school from their mother or village tongue. But in English-speaking nations, it is rare. Nevertheless, there is a growing movement towards so-called immersion schooling, in which children are taught in another language half the time. The state of Utah has been pioneering the idea, with many of its schools now offering immersion in Mandarin Chinese or Spanish.

“We use a half-day model, so the target language is used to teach in the morning, and then English is used in the afternoon – then this is swapped on other days as some learn better in the morning and some in the afternoon,” explains Gregg Roberts, who works with the Utah Office of State Education and has championed immersion language teaching in the state. “We have found that the kids do as well and generally better than monolingual counterparts in all subjects. They are better at concentrating, focusing and have a lot more self-esteem. Anytime you understand another language, you understand your language and culture better. It is economically and socially beneficial. We need to get over our affliction with monolingualism.”

The immersion approach is being trialled in the UK now, too. At Bohunt secondary school in Liphook, Hampshire, head teacher Neil Strowger has introduced Chinese-language immersion for a few lessons.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Immersing yourself in a new language and culture may open your mind to new ways of thinking (Credit: Getty Images)

I sit in on an art class with 12-year-olds being taught by two teachers: one speaking English, the other Chinese. The children are engaged but quiet, concentrating on the task of learning multiple ideas. When they speak it is often in Chinese – and there is something rather surreal about watching young people in the UK discussing British graffiti artist Banksy in Mandarin. The children say they chose to learn in Chinese because they thought it would be “fun” and “interesting” and “useful” – a far cry from the dreary French lessons I endured at school.

The majority of the art class will take their Chinese GCSE exams several years early but Strowger tells me the programme has had many benefits in addition to their grades, including improving students’ engagement and enjoyment, increasing their awareness of other cultures so that they are equipped as global citizens, widening their horizons, and improving their job prospects.

What about those of us who have left school? In order to maintain the benefits of bilingualism, you need to use your languages and that can be tricky, especially for older people who may not have many opportunities to practise. Perhaps we need language clubs, where people can meet to speak other languages. Bak has done a small pilot study with elderly people learning Gaelic in Scotland and seen significant benefits after just one week. Now he aims to carry out a much larger trial.

It is never too late to learn another tongue, and it can be very rewarding. Alex Rawlings is a British professional polyglot who speaks 15 languages: “Each language gives you a whole new lifestyle, a whole new shade of meaning,” he says. “It’s addictive!”

“People say it’s too hard as an adult. But I would say it’s much easier after the age of eight. It takes three years for a baby to learn a language, but just months for an adult.”

As the recent research shows, that’s a worthwhile investment of time. Being bilingual could keep our minds working longer and better into old age, which could have a massive impact on how we school our children and treat older people. In the meantime, it makes sense to talk, hablarparlersprechenbeszel, berbicara in as many languages as you can.

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.


A Bilingual Brain Solves Problems Faster

Check inside the link for video.

Language allows us to share thoughts and feelings with somebody else. It’s our cultural glue. Otherwise, we’d live in a world of babel. But there’s much more to language, including elements that affect the structure and functioning of the brain.

While the first words spoken may have been 250,000 years ago, now more than half of the people around the world – estimates vary from 60 to 75 percent – speak at least two languages.

Eighty percent of primary and secondary students in 24 European countries are learning a foreign language, usually English. Across the United States the number is closer to 20 percent, but this varies by state. In New Jersey, 51 percent of students have a second language course included as part of the school day.

Learning those languages impacts our noggins. Brain scans show that people who speak more than one language have more gray matter in their anterior cingulate cortex, the area linked to everything from learning to social behavior to resolving conflicts.

A leading neuropsychologist says it’s like a muscle – using it makes it bigger and more flexible. There’s a sort of competition that goes on in the brains of people who speak multiple languages. Since it’s possible to use either language at any moment, their brains have developed ways to regulate which language is spoken. The brain’s executive functions, a regulatory system that includes inhibition, allow a person to focus, and “pause” the language not being used.

Research shows this mechanism has a lot of other benefits. People who speak more than one language are better at switching between two tasks. For example, bilinguals can switch from categorizing objects by color to sorting them by shape more rapidly than monolingual people.

Why is this? Their brains regularly inhibit languages and employ that same regulation to “inhibit” tasks. It doesn’t end there. People who speak more than one language also have the ability to make more rational decisions. When faced with a choice, the inhibition center quiets intuitions and emotions.

This means that bilingual people might be better employees in jobs requiring rational planning, managing complexity and problem solvingOther implications: bilingual children are better at adjusting to environmental changes, and bilingual seniors can experience less cognitive decline. There are even indications that speaking more than one language can lead to faster stroke recovery.

Is picking up a second language easy?  Not always, especially as an adult. But the brain-benefits are awfully robust, not to mention it’s useful knowing the difference between embarazada and embarrassed.

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