How the Brain Benefits From Being Bilingual

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Michael Friberg for TIME

A group of Utah first-graders listen and read along in Mandarin

Never mind how well spoken you might be now, you will never again be as adept with languages as the day you were born. Indeed, the youngest person in any room is almost always the best linguist there too. There are 6,800 languages in the world, and since you can’t know where you’ll be born, you have to pop from the womb to be able to speak any one of them. That talent fades fast — as early as nine months after birth, some of our language synapses start getting pruned away. But well into your grammar-school years, your ability to learn a second — or third or fourth — language is still remarkable.

That, it turns out, is very good for the brain. New studies are showing that a multilingual brain is nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer. All of this is prompting public schools to implement language-immersion programs for kids as young as kindergarteners, as I report in the new issue of TIME; nowhere is that more evident than in Utah, where 20% of all public schools offer K-12 dual-language instruction, with students taking half their classes every day in English and half in either Spanish, French, Mandarin or Portuguese. To date, representatives from 22 other states have gone to Utah to learn more about the program.

The kids in bilingual classes in Utah and elsewhere aren’t thinking much about the nature of their brains when they go to school each morning; they’re only aware of the rich and lyrical experience of living and learning bilingually. But scientists — particularly neurologists, psychologists and educational specialists — are watching closely. In a polyglot world, a largely monoglot nation like the U.S. is at last moving to catch up — and not a moment too soon.

To read Kluger’s full story about the benefits of being bilingual, subscribe here. Already a subscriber? Click here.

24 comments
nanocuenot
nanocuenot

Deux réflexions : d'abord, pourquoi cet article n'offre pas de traduction ? Is US language universal ? et donc la réflexion suivante : une langue est connotée de culture; la langue est à l'image de la façon de vivre, de l'environnement, etc. l'anglais parlé dans les différentes parties du monde n'est pas le même. Est-ce que le mandarin parlé en Amérique du sud à une légitimité ? est-ce que parler français à Manhattan est justifié, et si une langue est le reflet d'une culture, peut-on apprendre le portugais en mangeant des nems ? Je veux dire, peut-on dissocier la langue et la culture ? Dans quel but faut-il apprendre une langue étrangère ?

alouette
alouette

I had to learn three foreign languages at a very young age (English is one of them) due to my parents' moving from country to country because of their work and I believe that to be the cause of most of my mental problems. Apart from always being the "new" and "weird" kid, I was always better at spotting details and understanding subtle meanings which others never seemed to be aware of, which eventually turned me into a quiet and introverted child and into a borderline autistic individual later on in life. So, there you go, a first-hand account about the possible negative effects of being "plurilingual".

bm988
bm988

I wonder there are no bad effects of bilingual education on the such little children, something like stresses from confusing??

yongjianli
yongjianli

Of course, if you can speak foreign language, you can read and watch foreign book and news. Your mind can recive new information and new thoughts from where is totally different from your home. So, in another aspect, a polyglot has a broader filed of vision and more open mind than other monoglots.

DimSumWarriors
DimSumWarriors

As a professor of education and a parent a bilingual child, I can only see benefits to being bilingual. And the younger we start them the better. I do see how knowing a different language also helps children see that when someone doesn't understand them, it might not be because the person is "less" or "dumb", but that the person understands another language. That's a very important orientation that I think knowing more than one language gives a kid. It is for this reason that I developed the bilingual comics iPad app that allows readers to listen and read in Mandarin and English - Dim Sum Warriors.

Bonnced
Bonnced

Time dedicated 6 pages of this last issue to language learning but managed to avoid the phrase "bilingual education," which is what the article is about.  Bilingual Education is something the U.S. government has been helping schools pay for since 1969. Unfortunately, politics has branded Bilingual Ed as something anti-American, and has eliminated or distorted these programs in many areas in this country.  We have undermined the talent that our many speakers of other languages have come to school with by not developing their literacy as children.  The result has been that Americans are seen as inept when they try to do business abroad, and Europeans talk circles around us.

Niemij
Niemij

This is not a new concept, Milwaukee Public School opened its first immersion school in 1977.  My children go to Milwaukee German Immersion School and have excel in German and English.

KirstaBleyleAlbert
KirstaBleyleAlbert

Utah's program was initiated by Gov. Jon Huntsman to continue his commendable work in encouraging businesses to start up in -- or relocate to -- Utah. I live in Park City where all four of our elementary schools have dual immersion programs (2 French, 2 Spanish - one of the two Spanish DI schools just chose to go fully DI, which I commend). My daughter is entering 4th grade in the fall (her 4th year in DI), and I am such a fan of the program, I can't say enough great things about it! They've moved the program at my daughter's school to start with all-day kindergarten, which will be to the benefit of my now 4-year-old. For us, however, the greatest benefit has been to witness Spanish-native speakers within our community learn to read and write the language they speak at home. Their potential is now limitless, and because math is taught exclusively in Spanish, we're seeing some native speakers excel in this subject, while they might have been left behind were it taught to them only in English!

JordanSwenson
JordanSwenson

Utah has so many programs because many people here in Utah learn languages when they go on a church mission.  Unlike other many other places in America Utah is actually not very "monoglot."  About half the population speaks another language and the languages range from Chinese-the language I learned on my mission to Tongan, Finnish, French, Viet, Indonesian, Bulgarian etc.

Nanetya
Nanetya

Hi, languages is the main way to maintain cultures. Most languages are only spoken and not written. We have founded the Nanetya Foundation http://nanetya-foundation.org/ to preserve global languages by collecting stories in their mother tongue. We began in Africa, collecting lost stories which usually have been told from elders to youngsters, and for the first time are printed in their mother tongue (not translated to English). You are welcome to send us stories in any language in the world, they will be published in their mother tongue for future generations.

MartinReyes
MartinReyes

The article had lots of interesting information for the general public, so I was pleased to see it in TIME, where many people may see it. I finished an MA degree in TESOL and bilingualism was the topic of one of my last courses. I am from Dallas, TX: Spanish-English bilingual from birth (or before, I suppose, acc. to the article), and I have acquired other languages during adolescence and after (each taking more and more work!). 

I think these topics were not mentioned: (1) There are no downsides to being (fully) bilingual, despite what politicians and social movements at times allege. (2) The natural/normal human state *is* bilingual: more humans are bilingual than not.

HollyKick
HollyKick

and why chinese ???? china will take over the world , come on ... stop teaching chinese like virus ... in bay area it is hard to find a non chinese preschool .. where are we going with cultural diversity .. is this diversity ?  I would like to see more indian , russian, german , japanese preschools, establishments.

Polneon
Polneon

I, like untold other millions, have been bilingual since birth.  I am now what you could say is a polyglot.  All my education (MA) has been in bilingual environments.  All my professional life has been conducted in polyglot environments.   I am now 76 and still going strong and blogging in three languages.  I enjoyed the sentence that declared that a "polyglot brain is not necessarily a smarter brain."  I've been saying that to people all my life.  Now I feel vindicated.  Thanks, Time. 

johnhiltoniii
johnhiltoniii

I have students enrolled in the Utah programs described in this article and I have been very impressed with what is taking place.

PradyumnSharma
PradyumnSharma

India has about 1500 recognized languages. Most Indians speak at least three, and understand a few more. 

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

But if people speak different languages, how will I know what they're saying about me?

Sympathesizer
Sympathesizer

@alouette First of all, someone who speaks more than two languages are "multilingual".   Second, because your being "extra-keen" on people does not make you "a borderline autistic individual".  What you need is to go where all the muitilingual children were and not stayed with your mono-lingual neigbhorhood kids.  Being multi-lingual is a life-changing experience.  You've changed and just not the same as children who have not been exposed to other cultures and languages anymore.   It sounded you needed guidance and love when you were young so you didn't have to feel shame of your difference and turned into an introverted as the answer to your being different.  Just because of everyone else is "dull minded" didn't mean you were "weird".  You acquired the added ability to read people and have been sensitized to feel others' feelings that nobody felt.  It's not too late if you start now -- try to be surrounded with multicultural people and not stay in your little town, wherever you were from.  Good luck! 

Jeli
Jeli

@bm988That's a common misconception - that bilingual children may be confused, stressed, or even fall behind their peers. Of course, there may be stress from being "different" from other children. But most children are perfectly 'normal' and function just as well as their monolingual friends. The thing about people thinking bilingual children have delayed language capability is because these children, most of the time are only tested in one language. One needs to test in both languages of the child to truly determine if a child is 'slower' with his/her language ability. Most times, bilingual children live a perfectly fine life and eventually the two languages should plateau. So no stress/confusion. If anything, it opens a whole new perspective on life and helps children be more accepting to other cultures as well (in my opinion). I grew up as a simultaneous bilingual meaning I learned 2 languages at the same time and I never had a problem. And for these children, it is truly a privilege to be learning before puberty. I wish  I learned my 3rd and 4th languages as young as this; I wouldn't be struggling so much now. 

KirstaBleyleAlbert
KirstaBleyleAlbert

@JordanSwenson @JordanSwenson The presence of dual immersion in Utah's schools is a result of Gov. Jon Huntsman's efforts to increase the state's draw for business, and to better prepare our students to compete globally. I recognize that he served a mission in Taiwan, but the genesis of Utah's DI program is not rooted in the church, nor is it in any way related to LDS missions. It would do the program a disservice in the eyes of other states to imply as much. http://www.languagepolicy.org/documents/Utah%20Dual%20Language%20Immersion.pdf 

Omnimalevolent1
Omnimalevolent1

@HollyKick Gee... I wonder?  Could it be that Mandarin is the most widely spoken primary language in the world?  I dunno, it seems like a good reason.  Indian is not a language, but rather India is made up of multiple ethnic groups which all speak differing languages; however, the most widely spoken language is Hindi, with Sanskrit and English also being widely spoken.  You have already established that you do not have even a basic understanding of linguistics, should you really be deciding what is or is not useful?  As for Russian, it is not a very useful language outside of the Slavic regions.  Japanese is every bit as useless.  Trust me, I happen to be trilingual (English, Spanish, and Japanese--a bit of a few other languages, but I am not fluent in them, so I don't count them) I can assure you just how useless teaching children Japanese is.  About 99% of Japanese speakers live in Japan.  It has little to no use outside of Japan.  I mean, don't get me wrong, you cannot really survive in Japan without knowing Japanese (unlike Europe).  Very few people in Japan speak adequate English, so if you are actually living in Japan it is a must.  I was grateful for my Japanese when I lived in Japan, but the majority of children are not going to be interacting heavily with the Japanese, who tend to be much more isolated than their neighbors (unless you are planning on international business, and honestly, I think south-east Asia is the future with this.  Japan has failed to dominate high-tech manufacturing, allowing the "Four Tigers" to snatch up these key industries)  Now that I don't live in Japan, spoken Japanese is useless, I almost never use it.  I am still glad I know it however, since many of my favorite books are in Japanese.   Which brings me to your other option, German.  This is actually a very sound option from a literary stance.  If I recall correctly, German is either the 3rd or 4th most widely published language (I cannot remember specifically).  With this in mind, it is very useful for a person who enjoys reading a wide variety of literature; specifically more scientific and medical literature.  After all, there was a period of time where German was the lingua franca of the scientific community,  Unfortunately, despite its perks in a written form, spoken German is likewise unnecessary (Although since Germany is one of the US's largest trading partners, I think number 4 or 5? and one of the largest economies in the world, perhaps from a business standpoint it couldn't hurt.).  The vast majority of German speakers are also very proficient in English, so it is hardly essential to communicate.