In the past, there was a misconception that it was confusing for babies and young children to be exposed to more than one language, that they couldn’t handle it. Judith Kroll, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, and former director of Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Language Science, has been researching the topic of bilingualism through various public fellowships for years.
“What we now know is that that’s simply mythology. Babies who are exposed to more than one language, even from the earliest moments of their life, benefit from that exposure,” Kroll says.
Looking at the Mouth
We are hard-wired from birth to pay attention to speakers and specifically to their mouths. “During the first year of life, babies initially look at people’s eyes and then begin to look at people’s mouths,” Kroll says. This is true of both monolingual and bilingual babies. As time progresses, however, babies exposed to more than one language focus more on the mouth. While monolingual babies are strongly tuned into their native languages after a year, bilingual babies are more open to the different languages they hear.
“There’s some thought that that kind of initial broader sensitivity may later hold some really important consequences for language learning, and those benefits may extend much longer than childhood or infancy,” Kroll says.
There’s another misconception that bilingual babies are slower to start speaking. Kroll is quick to debunk this myth: bilingual babies are not slower, but they do have a temporary, slightly different trajectory for acquiring language. While initially they may have a smaller vocabulary than their monolingual counterparts, they are learning skills monolinguals aren’t, like code-switching.
Previously misunderstood to be a deficiency, code-switching is the ability to seamlessly switch between two languages in one sentence. This is possible because both languages are always active in a bilingual’s mind. “When a bilingual is interacting with one language, the other language is pulled up at the same time,” Kroll says. “[Bilinguals] learn how to sort out information that they need at any given time.”
Bilinguals rarely confuse languages or say bonjour when they mean to say hello. This ability to differentiate and switch between languages is called language juggling, and it greatly benefits bilinguals’ cognitive control. Specifically, bilinguals show increased executive control, the brain function that allows humans to carry out complex tasks, plan activities and problem solve, among other things, according to a research paper Kroll and Paula E. Dussais wrote for the American Academy of Arts and Science’s Commission on Language Learning. All of the off-the-cuff language decision-making has also been shown to confer benefits for attentiveness in bilingual individuals.
With all of these cognitive abilities, bilingual children may just have an advantage when it comes to the classroom. Eric Thuau is the head of French American School of Puget Sound, which instructs students in French and English using a full-immersion approach. Thuau notes that students of FASPS are stronger at learning other languages because of learning the intricacies of language. Students of FASPS also show strong critical thinking, which helps them in other academic areas such as math, science, technology and the arts. Kroll’s research also suggests benefits for bilinguals in the area of academics, including grammar and literacy.
Opting for Bilingualism
In the past, and perhaps even now, there was a school of thought that as soon as immigrants came to the United States, they should doff their native home language as soon as possible in order to learn English. However, Kroll’s findings suggest the opposite. Kroll strongly encourages parents in this situation to teach their children the home language even if it won’t be spoken outside the home. “It’s very important to maintain the home language,” Kroll says. Aside from helping kids maintain their connection to their parents and their culture, “It may facilitate their ability to learn English.” The idea is that fully understanding the mechanics of the home language will help kids wrap their minds around a new language.
Monolingual parents may also wish to raise their children with more than one language. To accomplish this, some parents opt to send their kids to a public or private school that offers a dual-immersion program, or they may find babysitters or nannies that speak the second language.
Thuau offers some context for the practical importance of bilingualism: “Bilingual students are more culturally agile because there is no language without culture.” Kids that speak more than one language may be more open and receptive to different people and cultures. Kroll’s research suggests that learning a new language and culture will have powerful effects on children’s readiness as global citizens. In today’s world, that is crucial. The greatest benefit of bilingualism, after all, is being able to communicate with people in another language.