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Dr. Magryta: Bilingualism

“What do we know about bilingualism? Much of what we once thought we knew — that speaking two languages is confusing for children, that it poses cognitive challenges best avoided — is now known to be inaccurate. Today, bilingualism is often seen as a brain-sharpening benefit, a condition that can protect and preserve cognitive function well into old age.” (https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/15/10/bilingualism-life-experience)

Growing up in Europe or Miami offers a distinct advantage to its residents, exposure to another commonly spoken language. This offers a challenge to the brain to master the nuances of two disparate ways of communicating through words. A pathway to developing new neural circuits that are guaranteed to help the brain stay strong.

Citizens learning a second language are also very useful to a traditionally monolingual society. Whether it be in business or general life, knowing a second or third language can help one interact with non English speaking persons. This gives one an advantage in the job market and government.

I am most interested in the significant data showing that the benefits of bilingualism are primarily related to learning and mental growth including: mental flexibility, abstract thinking and working memory. All three benefits are critical for higher learning.

From the beginning, children’s brains are able to learn multiple languages simultaneously where an adult has to think in their primary language before converting that word to the secondary language. This is a much more cumbersome and slow task.

Children jump back and forth all day long because of enhanced brain regions that have grown in response to the need based on the early language exposure. These brain regions are specialized in executive function which crosses over into areas of attention, focus and problem solving. Just like a leg muscle hypertrophying with extra use allowing one to be a better sprinter, the same effect happens with the brain.

Interestingly, lifelong bilingual adults have a decreased risk of dementia and also have increased brain matter in areas associated with executive function compared to monolingual peers.

What can we do to stimulate extra learning in the language sphere?

If you speak a primary language that is not English, use that language at all times with your family. Do not let your children respond in English. They will learn English without issue as they age through school and primary friend conversations.

Use the free and excellent application Duolingo to enhance language learning. I use this app routinely and find it user friendly. This is a great way for you to join your child in the language experience if you are a novice as well.

Immerse your child in language learning in school by mandating that they take a language when it is offered. The earlier the better according to the research.

Travel to places where the language is different. Consider a drive to Miami, Mexico, Quebec or fly away anywhere that you can. Being in the environment is an excellent way to learn. Mission trips to Ecuador provided the genesis of my Spanish learning.

Dr. M

Dr. Chris Magryta is a physician at Salisbury Pediatric Associates. Contact him at newsletter@salisburypediatrics.com

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