The ‘brain benefits’ of a bilingual education
Playpen Bilingual Education in São Paulo has changed its name to reflect its absolute commitment to bilingual teaching and learning. Matthias Meier, Principal of Playpen Bilingual Education in Brazil, explains the research into the positive impact this way of learning has on the development of children’s brains.
In the majority of schools, children will have some hours on their timetable during which they are taught another language, while international schools tend to teach primarily in one language, with 10-20% taught in the local language. Neither of these models represent a bilingual education. In contrast, Playpen Bilingual Education offers a programme of what it terms ‘full language immersion’.
The majority of Playpen students’ parents are native Portuguese speakers, so in kindergarten (age 14 months to 5 years), children are taught entirely in English. This is important because research shows that early exposure to a ‘target’ language can dramatically affect the speed of learning. Great fluency and excellent phonetics from teachers are important at this early age because children will simply copy what they hear. It is therefore crucial that kindergarten teachers are fluent in both languages, while being a native speaker of the target or second language is ideal.
In primary school (age 6 to 11 years), children are taught in English 50% of the time and in Portuguese the other 50%. Each topic is taught just once, in one of the two languages through the integration of a modern, enquiry-based curriculum. As the children get older, the teaching tends to shift more to the local language.
The result is that bilingual learners have two interacting systems whereby both languages are always active to some degree. There is no language switch but joint activation, with benefits beyond pure language acquisition.
Bilingualism is one of the most intense and sustained experiences the brain can have; consequently, there is a significant impact on brain structure and cognition. Recent studies in Canada by Dr. Daniel Ansari, winner of the Transforming Education through Neuroscience-Award, using MRI scans have shown that children exposed to a second language in a bilingual way have better-developed Executive Control Systems in their brains than single language learners.
This part of the brain is involved in thinking, planning, controlling emotions and behaviour and has to work all the time in a bilingual concept education. As a result, bilingually educated children are often:
- Faster at problem solving
- Better at planning
- Better at organising
- Can more easily control their behaviour as they are more aware and familiar with assessing their environment to determine which is the most appropriate language to use
Bilingual learners have also shown that they can slow down the brain’s ageing process which can be particularly key to delaying the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s, as research by Ellen Bialystok in Toronto demonstrated. Bilingual learners are capable of making a switch to use another part of their brain so the problem does not materialise as soon as it might otherwise.
With 100% immersion, children aged just two or three years old can be fluent in both their native and a target language. This, of course, depends on the curriculum they follow and the level of exposure to both languages they have in school and at home. Having parents who are able to speak both languages makes a difference to a child’s progress and vocabulary, particularly being able to choose from a wider selection of words in emotional scenarios than those with monolingual (single language) parents.
Do bilingual children ever mix up the two languages?
Young children will sometimes insert a Portuguese word into the middle of an English sentence, for example, and this can lead to parents worrying that learning two languages concurrently will jeopardise the child’s learning of their mother tongue. This phenomenon is known as “Code Switching”. It is entirely normal for young children to use a word that comes easily than one they cannot place or have not learned yet. As with all learning, each child will develop at a different speed and this is to be expected, but combining languages in this way a phase that passes.
If children are not enrolled in a bilingual school from the start of their education, will they miss out on these ‘brain benefits’?
It is never too late, but starting early is important because the brain makes physical connections much quicker in young children when their brains are developing rapidly. It is simply a slower process and harder for adult brains.
Is there another way to foster these brain processes?
There are other things you can do that appear to have a similar impact on the brain as bilingual learning. One example is listening to music as the brain will work to divide the music into rhythm, words and so on which is a similar process to the brain sorting multiple languages. Even more powerful is playing a musical instrument.