Advantages of Bilingualism
Dr. Kathie F. Nunley
of our students may be unaware that they bring with them, one of
the strongest cognitive advantages to learning. They are fortunate
enough to be bilingual. The ability to speak more than one language
is one that offers many cognitive rewards now and into old age.
who speak more than one language fluently throughout their life
have better problem solving skills, better attention, improved executive
function and reduce the risk and severity of Alzheimer's, dementia,
and other brain deterioration issues.(Bialystok, 2004, 2010) Children
who are bilingual may have some benefit in learning to read due
to a stronger working memory. (Swanson, 2006)
more than one language is more complex than we first thought. Bilingualism
requires a fundamental reorganization of the entire language system
in the brain. Having more than one language housed in the brain
puts tremendous pressure on the prefrontal cortex, that area of
our brain that deals with working memory and executive function.
For this reason, brains of persons who are bilingual have a constant
mental workout in this particular brain region, (Penn, 2010). The
result is no different than what happens when you work out any area
of the body - strength and increased efficiency.
reasons for this appear to be multiple. First, if you are fluently
bilingual, the areas of the brain that operate both languages are
operating all the time. This is true, even if you remain in a mono-linguistic
environment. For example, if you speak both Portuguese and English
fluently, but work in an English speaking school and live in an
English speaking community so that all day long you hear and speak
nothing but English, the area of your brain responsible for Portuguese
is still running as you speak and listen to English. Both areas
run in tandem.
areas of dual language are very much intertwined and organized by
the brain region responsible for executive function. Apparently
the lexicons of the languages are partially shared and handled by
the prefrontal cortex. We can see this in instances of aphasia.
Aphasia is a condition where language, or parts of language are
lost, usually due to a head trauma. Occasionally the aphasia results
in a very select deficit in just one area of lexical processing.
For example, a person may lose the ability to speak nouns or just
verbs, or even just past tenses of verbs. When this type of injury
happens to a bilingual person, they lose the specific grammatical
class in both languages. In other words, if you speak both French
and English and can no longer say any nouns, you have lost that
ability in both languages. (Mozzo, 2010) I'll mention here too,
that recovery is faster and more complete for this condition if
you are bilingual. (Penn, 2010)
research is also showing us how critical language is to the formation
of cultural self. A person's cultural belief system and autobiographical
recounts are influenced and accessed differently through different
language. Bilingual children who were interviewed in both of their
languages had different stories, memories and personal reports based
on which language was used in asking the question. (Wang, 2010)
what does this mean for bilingual students in our classrooms? Help
them understand this incredibly valuable gift they bring with them
to school. Encourage them to continue to use, speak and read, whenever
possible, in both of their languages. Ask them questions that they
can respond to in either language. Have them share stories, recall
information and learn in both languages: "Tell me in English what
you remember learning about the water cycle, and then tell me again
in Luganda." Encourage their bilingualism. Help them celebrate their
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Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and
author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A
Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating
the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer
of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked
with parents and educators around the world to better structure
schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her
work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine,
the Washington Post, and ABC television.
her: Kathie (at) brains.org