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 gift.
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