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For a long time, many have argued that children should not be taught two languages because it could affect their cognitive abilities and confuse them. Another argument is that bilingual children will have academic difficulties when they start school and may fall behind. Children in the United States are often teased for speaking their native languages and are encouraged to solely speak English. However, numerous researches in the last few years have shown that being bilingual has a positive effect on infants’ cognitive development and on later-life cognition in adults. Research has also debunked the myth that a child will suffer in school, showing instead that bilingualism can improve overall academic performance in school. In fact, according to Werker (2011), people who speak more than one language have overall advantages in cognitive developments. According to Bialystok (2013), families can assimilate their children into another language without having to give up their first language. According to Bak (2014), a person can still learn a new language later in life to positively influence their aging brain. This paper will investigate the effects of bilingualism on cognitive development, how bilingualism benefits the brain later in life, and discuss why these studies and findings are relevant to education.
Numerous researches have been done to understand how bilingualism affects the brain and whether there are cognitive advantages when a person speaks more than one language. Research by Werker (2011) found that infants who grow up bilingual have some language abilities that monolingual babies do not. Dr. Werker used eight-month-old babies who grew up with both Spanish and Catalan at home and babies who grew up with only one spoken language at home. These babies listened to women recite phrases in English and then in French. The monolingual babies could not tell a difference when the women spoke English or French. However, the bilingual babies could distinguish between the two languages not just by listening but also visually, and even though they did not understand the languages they paid attention to the speakers for a longer time. The babies who could not discriminate got bored and looked away. Dr. Werker found that bilingual babies show several cognitive advantages that can aid them in more general learning. Research by Bialystok (2013) examined how bilingualism influences the brain’s cognitive control and age-related cognitive decline by studying the hospital records of monolingual and bilingual patients who had been diagnosed with various types of dementia. The sample of monolingual and bilingual AD patients that Dr. Bialystok used were of the same age and cognitive level. The patients’ CT scans showed more AD pathology in the brains of bilingual speakers and it demonstrates that they can deal with dementia longer without showing symptoms. This was due to bilingualism being a mental activity that constantly exercises the brain. Research by Bak (2014) revealed positive effects of bilingualism on later-life cognition in both early bilinguals and those who acquired a second language in adulthood. He also found that bilingualism slowed the start of dementia. For the research Dr. Bak studied the Lothian Birth Cohorts who were given an intelligence test in 1947 when they were 11 years old. The group was traced, retested at age seventy-three, and then the results were compared. The findings showed that bilinguals did much better on general intelligence, focusing, attention function, and functions of divided and selected attention. Dr. Bak found no adverse effects of bilingualism.
In the article by Genesse and Nicoladis (2008) the authors examine concerns about bilingual first language acquisition (BFLA) such as whether language development in BFL learners is the same as that of monolinguals, whether those that are learning two languages simultaneously face academic challenges, and whether BFL learners will be ostracized by their peers. In their research, they conclude that bilingual children begin to speak and develop their morphology and syntax by the same age as monolingual children and that bilinguals can switch off mutual exclusivity principles to accept two names for one object. Bialystok (2013) similarly discusses how people who are bilingual can see something and give it two labels (e.g., dog, chien). She also claims that bilingualism strengthens the executive control systems in the brain because generally bilinguals outperform monolinguals in executive control tasks. Genesse and Nicoladis also examine code-mixing, the use of two languages in a same conversation. In the past, bilingual children that used code-mixing were believed to be confused and behind in development. Yet, according to Genesse and Nicoladis, the code-mixing done by bilingual children was grammatically correct which could indicate that bilinguals are more intelligent because they know the grammar of both languages and because they code-mix like adults. Bak (2014) also addresses language switching done by bilinguals and finds it beneficial because the person’s brain is getting exercise. It is not that a bilingual child is confused, but instead skillful because they know when they can and cannot mix languages, and with what audience. Bilinguals’ brains are constantly at work, but it is done automatically — they do not have to think about it. Kuhl, Conboy, Padden, Nelson, and Pruitt (2005) support the research done by Dr. Werker by using a similar method in their research. Dr. Werker mentioned a head-turning conditioning experiment where infants turn their heads left or right if they hear a certain sound. Kuhl et al. tested infants growing up in a monolingual home in this manner. They used phonetic English and Mandarin Chinese sounds to explore the connection between perception and later language skills. The infants’ ability to differentiate between English and Mandarin sounds can predict their language abilities. Kuhl et al. also believe that social interaction influences infants’ word comprehension and production. Therefore, they will agree that Dr. Werker’s study was particularly effective because the infants in her procedure interacted face-to-face with the language speakers. Genesse and Nicoladis, Bialystok, Bak, and Kuhl et al. wholly agree that there are no negative effects of bilingualism.
The research studies on bilingualism by Werker, Bialystok, Bak, and Genesse and Nicoladis are relevant to education because they demonstrate that bilingual children do not face cognitive underperformances as it was once believed. This antiquated thinking, combined with prejudgments against children of different cultures, led to instruction and assessments being done predominately in English, causing bilingual students to perform poorly. Bilingual students were, and in some cases still are, often marginalized and given a negative message about their native language. Furthermore, bilingual education is seen as ineffective but that is because they are typically not a welcoming environment for students. Now that research shows that bilingual students outperform monolinguals in certain academic tasks, education policies and practices must embrace bilingualism learning instead of ignoring bilingual students’ needs and supporting the notion that native languages are inferior to English. Additionally, education policies must focus on preparing teachers with the necessary skills to handle the needs of bilingual students. This also benefits educators who discover new teaching methods and gain new understandings of other cultures and of all their students. Because these research studies also reveal that bilingual children will not fall behind academically, parents of bilingual children should not be afraid that their child will be confused when they start school because programs exist to help English Language Learners. Article 14C of the Illinois Compiled Statutes (2015) establishes that children who speak another language besides English have access to bilingual education programs that will help them transition into an all English curriculum. Dual language curriculums should be implemented, preferably starting from an early age, because they give all students an opportunity to become fluent in another language. The research studies of Werker, Bialystok, Bak revealed wide-ranging cognitive benefits because of bilingualism. In addition to the positive cognitive effects, dual language education can have long-term benefits for students who later in their careers become more marketable in the job market. A dual language curriculum also exposes students to different cultures and world views making them more open-minded individuals. Education policies that integrate bilingual education are crucial to help students embrace their heritage, their culture, their communities, or to be comfortable around those that differ from their own.
I think research studies on topics discussed by Werker, Bialystok, and Bak are important because they help debunk myths about bilingualism, highlight the positive effects of bilingualism in cognitive development and on the brain, and prove that bilingualism even offers health benefits like delaying the onset of Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. As someone that grew up bilingual, I consider myself blessed that my parents forced my siblings and I to preserve our native language. I have interviewed my mother about some of the concerns that were mentioned in the article by Genesee and Nicoladis and she stated that her fear was not that we would fall behind in school or that we would be confused when switching from one language to the other, but her concern was that we would forget our native language or refuse to speak it because we were embarrassed. Growing up, my siblings and I were teased and bullied for speaking Spanish, but we were strong enough to stand up to the discrimination we faced and are now bilinguals. Still, not every bilingual child is as strong as we were, and they might not see their bilingualism as a positive experience. My bilingualism has been extremely valuable to me. I have competed and landed jobs where I was selected over monolingual candidates. Bilingualism has also allowed me to meet new people and see the world in a diverse way. More importantly, being bilingual has shaped my identity and guided me towards what I want to do with the rest of my life which is teach another language to monolinguals or teach in an exclusive bilingual environment.
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