When it comes to language, Americans are woefully behind. The share of bilingual Americans is about half that of Canada and the U.K., and about a third of Europe’s average. Spanish is on the increase, even while many Americans are slow to adopt a new tongue. But Americans’ stubbornness may have considerable opportunity costs, as new research suggests bilingualism has some significant neurological benefits, especially in children.
A slew of recent studies from Northwestern, Princeton, and elsewhere have found that bilingual children are better at concentrating, multitasking, and are faster to empathize with others, says New Scientist (May 8, 2012). One reason, researchers said, is the fact that learning and speaking multiple languages can be very demanding on the brain. Without an off-switch on their language centers, bilingual brains have to constantly evaluate what language they’re hearing, and how they should interpret it. The increased activity helps bilinguals achieve sharper focus when performing any number of tasks.
And when they grow up, bilingualism may even stave off the effects of aging, dementia, and Alzheimer’s as it keeps the brain active and vital. Until very recently, most parents (and even doctors) thought exposing young children to multiple languages could be damaging. Teaching children to be bilingual, the thinking went, would leave them without mastery of any one tongue.
In fact, infants are well-designed to take on more than one language, says Psychology Today (April 16, 2012). Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found that infants can process and react to sounds of multiple languages. This means they can learn the rudiments of two languages over the same time-frame that their monolingual peers learn one. Most bilinguals acquire their languages in sequence, but the fact that a child has the capacity to do otherwise is a significant finding. The best part? Even as an adult, it’s never too late to learn.