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Cognitive Development of the Bilingual Child

A positive pregnancy test usually sets off a wave of celebration in any language. If you and your spouse are lucky enough to possess native fluency in two or more languages, you're in the enviable position to give your little bundle of joy the gift of bilingualism -- though you may worry that multiple languages will hurt your baby's language skills and academic success in the long term. Dr. Barry McLaughlin, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology specializing in language development and second-language acquisition at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has good news: "There is no evidence that becoming bilingual is detrimental to language development -- just the opposite." The bilingual brain benefits from the added exercise of processing two languages, just as cardiovascular exercise strengthens the physical body. The resulting intellectual boost affords your tot academic and social advantages that cannot be duplicated in a single-language environment.

The Bilingual Brain

Speaking two languages gives kids a more developed capacity for learning and memory, according to Dr. Eugene Garcia, professor emeritus specializing in bilingual language development at Arizona State University. In a comparison of the brain's internal workings in monolingual vs. bilingual children, the prefrontal cortex -- the brain's center for learning and memory -- develops a more robust network of neural connections in bilingual kids and sends out more signals. Dr. Garcia says, this "taxes the area in a positive way that promotes cognitive and social development and boosts the brain's ability to handle symbolic information." The exertion enables bilingual children to better filter out insignificant details in their environment and focus on what is most important.

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Benefits of Bilingualism

In practical terms for parents, Dr. Garcia advises that bilingual children are "better at taking control of their own learning and planning how to use information to learn." As a parent, you will probably most appreciate the added benefit of a child who listens to what you say more often and puts the information you give him about doing chores or meeting your expectations to good use. Proficiency in two or more languages helps your tyke make sense of other symbol systems such as math or other languages and promotes mental flexibility, creativity and innovation in handling ambiguity and problem-solving tasks. "They are better at thinking 'out of the box' and figuring things out that don't make sense in a normal way," Dr. Garcia points out, adding that the challenge to a child of figuring out how to handle herself competently in the two cultures that often come with two languages "equips her to grow in dealing with social interaction and how to handle social situations."

Optimal Windows for Bilingual Development

The brain is full of connections similar to your computer's circuits and wires that enable it to do its work. Unlike a computer system, though, the human brain has the capacity to grow and develop and does so most vigorously from birth to 5 years old, making this the ideal time for acquiring bilingual benefits. Neural-connection growth peaks again between the ages of 12 and 15, but changes stop after that age, according to Dr. Garcia. Older children and adults can still learn new languages, but the added benefits are not as apparent as those learned from birth.

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Raising a Bilingual Child

If you are eagerly awaiting the birth of your little angel or feeling the responsibility to do right by the newest addition to your family and wondering about the best way to raise him bilingually, keep in mind Dr. Garcia's advice: "Kids are wired to learn whatever languages they are exposed to, so do what seems normal to you." For some, that means each parent speaking solely one language around the home. For others, the division would be by activity, wherein the family communicates in one language during mealtimes but another during leisure time. Some families freely mix the languages or switch between them with no established pattern. "The important thing is to give them meaningful language to listen to and they will sort it out," counsels Dr. Garcia.

"Parents who really want to raise a bilingual child should "teach them the heritage language [the language of the non-dominant culture] very strongly," Dr. Garcia adds. "Let them learn English when they go to preschool."

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