Bilingualism: Good Nourishment for the Brain

7 min read  |  May 15, 2018  | 
Disponible en Español |

If — as the saying goes — education begins at home, teaching children a second language should also start at home.

In an increasingly globalized world, raising children to learn a second language at home is paramount. The figures speak for themselves: more than half of the world’s population is bilingual. The most recent United States Census noted that 20 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home. As for Spanish, estimates predict that it will continue to be the second most spoken language in this country.

The study of language and the benefits of bilingualism are of particular interest to the neuropsychologist Rosie E. Curiel Cid, PsyD, who researches the early manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“I was raised in Spanish,” says Dr. Curiel Cid, who was born in the United States. Learning Spanish enhanced her life professionally and personally.

At home, we always spoke in Spanish even though my parents, of Cuban origin, are completely bilingual. I can develop a better connection with my Hispanic patients when we speak in Spanish, and that is essential in psychotherapy.

Dr. Curiel Cid

Dr. Curiel Cid is the mother of three children. “If we manage to be bilingual, I will consider it a success,” she says enthusiastically. “It takes a lot of effort, but just as I want my children to have certain values, I want them to be bilingual.” She explains that learning Spanish will help their children connect with their cultural roots, have more work and social opportunities, and develop cognitive advantages that monolingual people do not have.

The basics of bilingual parenting

Human beings can learn multiple languages at the same time.

In fact, studies of language development in bilingual children indicate that they can acquire several language systems in parallel from a very young age. Children learn to distinguish which language to use in a given environment. For example, they know which language is spoken at home, with grandparents, and at school.

It’s important to expose children to both languages from birth to three years while learning their first language. As they grow, they develop the ability to understand and speak correctly in both languages and without an accent.

If the child has a language disorder, it’s best to wait until he/she has mastered the first language – elected by the parents – before going on to teach them a second language.

Recommendations for success

  • Determine your motivation. For example, perhaps you feel it’s essential to keep alive the connection with your cultural traditions and roots, or maybe, you are interested in obtaining more practical benefits.
  • Go ahead and use the second language at home with your children, since they’re going to learn the first language at school anyway. It’s advisable to speak to them in the second language from birth so that they develop the two languages in parallel. Ask them to communicate with you in the second language. In case they don’t, do not punish them, just kindly remind them that “At home, we speak Spanish,” for example.
  • Be consistent. Your children need a lot of practice to learn both languages. You can facilitate that practice at home. If they don’t use the second language, they’re likely to lose interest and insist on speaking the first language at home. In this case, remember the reason why you want your child to be bilingual. Children must continuously be exposed to the verbal, non-verbal and written forms of the language. It is not enough that they watch programs in Spanish, like “Dora the Explorer.”
  • Raising a bilingual child requires effort. Language is part of human survival. When parents are not proficient in English, the child is forced to speak their parents’ language at home. In this case, the parents expend a minimal amount of effort. However, when parents are bilingual, the effort becomes greater because they must be aware of not jumping from one language to another.
  • Make learning the second language fun. Tune them to their favorite television shows and read their favorite books aloud. You can also register them in extracurricular activities (dance, sports, art) with bilingual instructors.
  • Share cultural activities with your children: sing songs, paint, play with historical figurines, etc.
  • Use language resources such as printed cards with drawings, letters, and colors to learn words, letters, sounds and identify emotions.

Benefits of bilingualism

In addition to all the cultural, social and economic advantages, an increasing number of neuropsychological studies have shown that the regular use of two languages over the course of one’s life produces profound effects on the structure and functions of the brain.

Protective effect: The bilingual experience, as well as advanced education and a vibrant social and intellectual life, delay the incidence of the signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

One study showed that typical symptoms of Alzheimer’s appeared five years later in older people who spoke two languages.

Dr. Curiel Cid says that “the increase in cognitive reserve in bilingual people is the reason why those who have Alzheimer’s and still do not show symptoms, can handle their daily life very well.” The cognitive reserve is the brain’s ability to compensate for the damage suffered by different diseases or natural aging. “The cognitive reserve increases with experiences such as learning of several languages and higher education.”

Bilingual advantage: Studies have shown that bilingual people take a little longer than monolinguals to the correct word they will use since both languages are always in play. In contrast, this daily exercise of search, control and cognitive inhibition strengthens the executive functions of the brain, providing a bilingual advantage to children and adults. Dr. Curiel Cid explains that bilingual people acquire advantages in decision-making, problem and conflict resolution, attention, behavior and mental flexibility. Executive functions are skills that help us to set goals and carry them out. These are indispensable in school and daily life.

Conservation of white matter: Although the integrity of the white matter of the brain is reduced with age, studies conducted with magnetic resonance show that the experience of bilingualism contributes to a higher density of white matter throughout one’s lifetime. The primary function of white matter is the correct transmission of brain information. With the greater integrity of white matter, bilingual older people conserve mental speed and learning capacity at a higher level.

Myths and reality of a bilingual upbringing

Does growing up with more than one language confuse the child?

No, bilingual children develop more mental abilities than monolingual children. These skills provide advantages for learning another language, the development of reading, concentration, and understanding.

Is the bilingual child delayed in speech?

No, bilingual children do not have speech delays. Bilingual children may need a little longer to find the desired word, however, if a bilingual child experiences speech problems, the cause is not bilingualism.

Does the bilingual child develop language problems?

No, children can learn more than one language without affecting their language ability. In general, learning two languages takes more time than learning one

Does the bilingual child confuse words?

It is normal for bilingual children to use words from both languages from time to time. The child borrows words from the other language when he/she does not remember the right word. Bilingual children have a great facility to change language: they can speak with dad in one and mom in another.

Shirley Ravachi is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News blog.

Tags: Alzheimer's Disease, bilingual, Dr. Rosie E. Curiel Cid, language, neuropsychologist

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