Why bilingualism matters!

By Youthrive Speech Pathologist Freeda Thong

 

What is bilingualism?

Bilingualism is being fluent in understanding and speaking two languages. There are more bilingual and multilingual people in the world than there are monolinguals. In Australia alone – being one of the most diverse and multicultural countries in the world – we house over 300 different languages that are spoken in the home environment.

As a speech pathologist trained, living and working in Australia, I have had quite a few parents say things along the lines of “I feel so guilty for having spoken a second language at home to my child. This must have caused my child confusion which has now made their language delayed…”.

A lot of parents believe that a second language could be detrimental to their child’s learning, however, I believe that it is an absolute myth! As a bilingual language speaker myself, I have always been interested in the acquisition process of learning two languages and the neural development of bilingual and multilingual populations. Since delving into the world of speech pathology, I have become particularly interested in the landscape of therapies in bilingual populations. Here are some of the interesting findings I have stumbled across:

 

What does the literature state?

  • The acquisition speeds of language 1, versus language 2 are shown to be similar if learnt before the age of 8. Studies have shown that it does not disadvantage children to be learning more than one language at a time, and in fact that it is the best time for them to be learning and soaking up the sounds and words like a sponge!
  • Learning two languages does not impact deciphering or decoding of information. Children are able to differentiate the languages as two separate languages by age of 5.
  • English is the main language used around the world, but in Australia it is slowly becoming the only language spoken at home. From 2011 to 2016 there was a 4% decrease of bilingual households, and the stats around this is suggest that the trend will continue on this trajectory. This may be due to multiple factors, though I can imagine some of the reasons may stem from hearsay such as the second-language-causing-language-delays myth I mentioned above.

Okay, so other than being able to speak an extra language, share secrets with your mum or dad at the shops without other people understanding, there are heaps of other benefits to being bilingual. Some of these may be a pleasant surprise to you!

 

So, what are the benefits of bilingualism?

I have had the pleasure of reading through a pile of research journals, literature articles, anecdotal proses and organisational pages and have amalgamated the following top seven benefits of bilingualism below. Bilingualism has been suggested to:

  1. Improve a speaker’s ability to communicate efficiently. For people who interact with another person knowing the same two languages, language switching may decrease the number of utterances which makes communicating more efficient. For example, if an idea in language 1 is 3 words, and in language 2 is 1 word, it would make sense to simply choose the single word in language 2 to decrease the number of utterances.
  2. Increase a speaker’s sense of belonging and understanding to a culture and family heritage.
  3. Reduced incidence or later onset of dementia. Literature suggests that the second language acquisition encourages healthier brain development and better able to resist effects of aging. The term ‘cognitive reserve’ is used to describe the neurological benefits that act as a protective mechanism to cognitive decline. This is believed to occur due to increase activation of the brain networks which encourages less damage during aging and increase memory and executive control.
  4. Increase ease of acquiring a third language compared to monolinguals.
  5. Increase career and job prospects, as they have an added skill.
  6. Give an academic advantage for children to learn and decipher information more effectively. Positively affects cognitive abilities including attention, task switching and adjustments to environmental changes and hence coping mechanisms are better. Additionally, literature is suggesting that the increase neural activation encourages better coding of sounds which has a correlative relationship with increased auditory attention.
  7. Allow for ease of travel to country that speaks the same language/s.

We hope this was an interesting read, that you learnt something new and that you continue to encourage diversity and language rich environments at home.

For more tips and strategies for language development, please see below articles:

Developing the vocabulary skills vital for success

7 tips to improve your child’s social and communications skills