In India we witness vastly different situations when it comes to a child’s linguistic education. On one hand, we have children who find it difficult to get a grasp on English due to infrastructural and systemic inequalities. On the other hand, we see children who are encouraged to conduct themselves solely in English in a bid to improve their prospects. While the disadvantages faced by the former group of children are fairly well-known and discussed, the latter group is also losing out on much because of their inability to communicate in more than one language.
Till the 1960s scientists had viewed bilingualism as a hindrance to a child’s learning abilities and development since learning two languages demanded more energy and time. However, advances in brain imaging technology have shown neurolinguists the benefits of having a bilingual brain. So here are some reasons why you should encourage your children to speak, write and read in at least two languages!
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Learning more than one language doubles up as a form of cognitive workout for your brain. Children who are exposed to more than one language from a young age exhibit greater levels of cognitive flexibility. When a bilingual toddler attempts to communicate, the two languages in the brain compete to be chosen, forcing the child to select one and discard the other, a process that requires attention, control and cognitive flexibility. In young adults, this back and forth between two languages produces better attention and concentration. This workout essentially strengthens the cognitive muscles of the brain!
Improving the Brain’s Command Center:
Children with bilingual brains are known to be better at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. This indicates that the command center of the brain functions better as a consequence of bilingualism. This means that the ability of the brain to solve problems, plan in advance, hold information and switch attention is sharper in bilingual children.
Warding off Alzheimer’s and Dementia:
Bilingual brains are also known to delay the onset of cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer's and dementia by almost five years. Even after developing the disease, bilingual brains are known to function better and degenerate more slowly.
Denser Grey Matter:
The grey matter in your brain is responsible for processing language, storing memory and commanding attention spans. Learning an extra language results in higher density of the grey matter which contains most of the brain’s neurons and synapses. Since learning a foreign language involves learning new rules and vocabulary, it also boosts the memory capacity of your brain.
While picking up a new language at any stage of your life is rewarding and improves the abilities of your brain by demanding greater cognitive exertion, learning an extra language is easiest and has the highest impact in one’s formative years. The plasticity of children’s brains means that both hemispheres of the brain are employed for language acquisition. This enables children to grasp the social and emotional contexts of different languages better than adults.
Hence we believe that it is important for children to read books in different languages. Many children’s books come with texts in two languages. That might be a good start! So what are you waiting for? It’s time to put new books in your child’s hands!