The brain’s real super-food may be learning new languages. by Casey Schwartz (Brown University graduate with master's degree in psychodynamic neuroscience from University College, London. She is working on a book about the brain world)
On a sweltering August morning, in a classroom overlooking New York’s Hudson River, a group of 3-year-olds are rolling sticky rice balls in chocolate sprinkles, as a teacher guides them completely in Mandarin.
This is just one toddler learning game at the total--immersion language summer camp run by the primary school Bilingual Buds, which offers a year-round curriculum in Mandarin as well as Spanish (at a New Jersey campus) for kids as young as 2.
Bilingualism, of course, can be a leg up for college admission and a résumé burnisher. But a growing body of research now offers a further rationale: the regular, high-level use of more than one language may actually improve early brain development.
According to several different studies, command of two or more languages bolsters the ability to focus in the face of distraction, decide between competing alternatives, and disregard irrelevant information. These essential skills are grouped together, known in brain terms as “executive function.” The research suggests they develop ahead of time in bilingual children, and are already evident in kids as young as 3 or 4.
While no one has yet identified the exact mechanism by which bilingualism boosts brain development, the advantage likely stems from the bilingual’s need to continually select the right language for a given situation. According to Ellen Bialystok, a professor at York University in Toronto and a leading researcher in the field, this constant selecting process is strenuous exercise for the brain and involves processes beyond those required for monolingual speech, resulting in an extra stash of mental acuity, or, in Bialy-stok’s terms, a “cognitive reserve.”
Bilingual education, commonplace in many countries, is a growing trend across the United States, with 440 elementary schools (up from virtually none in 1970) offering immersion study...
Some of the most valuable mental perks of bilingualism can’t be measured at all, of course. To speak more than one language is to inherit a global consciousness that opens the mind to more than one culture or way of life.
Bilinguals also appear to be better at learning new languages than monolinguals. London-based writer Clarisse Lehmann spent her early childhood in Switzerland speaking French. At 6, she learned English. Later she learned Spanish, German, and, during three years spent living in Tokyo, Japanese.
“There’s a witty humor in English that has a different sensibility in French,” she says. “And in Japanese, there’s no sarcasm. When I tried, it would be ‘We don’t understand what you’re trying to say.’?” ...
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