October 24, 2017

The Benefits of Children
Speaking Multiple Languages

Matthew Locker

When selecting your child's school, there a number of key factors that influence your decision:

  • Social Background and Status
  • School Syllabus
  • School Environment and Facilities
  • School Performance.
  • Quality of Education
  • Proximity and Locality

Another increasingly large consideration for many parents is concerned with language.

In 1922, in “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote,  


“The limits of my language 
mean the limits of my world.”



Many parents choose to have their child educated in a bilingual, possibly even multilingual, setting and they are right to do so. There are myriad benefits associated with this type of education and exposure to more than one language.

What are the advantages of a bilingual education?

The ability to speak more than one language can enhance brain function, academic performance and business acumen. Teaching children in multiple languages can even help them learn languages quicker.

Dual-language education programs that promote bilingualism and biliteracy in English and a partner language have been found to narrow the achievement gap between English-language learners and their native English-speaking peers. People who speak more than one language often have increased creativity and problem-solving skills, as well as better memory and ability to multitask.

Because bilingual children switch between languages, they develop the ability to effectively manage what are called higher cognitive processes, such as problem solving, memory, and thought. They become better able to inhibit some responses, promote others, and generally emerge with a more flexible and agile mind. It’s a phenomenon that researchers call the bilingual advantage.

Bilingual children can pay attention better and for longer. They can pay focused attention without being distracted and also improve their ability to switch from one task to another.

Young children being raised bilingual have to follow social cues to figure out which language to use with which person and in what setting. By doing so they develop their ability to be empathetic.

Ability to Read

Research indicates that students taught in a bilingual (or multilingual setting) improve their ability to read. This is described as "metalinguistic awareness."

About 10 percent of students in the Portland, Ore., public schools are assigned by lottery to dual-language classrooms that offer instruction in Spanish, Japanese or Mandarin, alongside English. Jennifer Steele at American University conducted a four-year, randomized trial and found that these dual-language students outperformed their peers in English-reading skills by a full school year's worth of learning by the end of middle school.


School performance and engagement is also improved in bilingual settings. In the US, studies covering six states and 37 districts, have found that, compared with students in English-only classrooms or in one-way immersion, dual-language students have somewhat higher test scores and also seem to be happier in school. Attendance is better, behavioural problems fewer, and parent involvement higher.

Social Skills

Social skills are also improved, bilingual children are able to interact with speakers of (at least) two languages and thus have direct access to two different cultures. Probably due to the practice of switching languages, bilinguals are very good at taking different perspectives, dealing with conflicting cues and ignoring irrelevant information. This skill can be applied to domains other than language, making it an added value of bilingualism.

Too Strenuous?

A common worry for some parents is that trying to speak two (or more) languages could be too strenuous for their child. But there is no need for concern: learning to speak is more similar to learning to walk than it is to learning a school subject. Learning to speak is genetically programmed. The brain is certainly able to cope with more than one language, as research and experience shows. Bilingualism is not genetic: having parents who speak different language does not guarantee a bilingual child.

Around the world, more than half of people – estimates vary from 60 to 75 per cent – speak at least two languages. Many countries have more than one official national language – South Africa, for example, has 11. People are increasingly expected to speak, read and write at least one of a handful of “super” languages, such as English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish or Arabic, as well. So to be monolingual, as many native Japanese speakers are, is to be in the minority, and perhaps to be missing out.

Multilingualism has been shown to have many social, psychological and lifestyle advantages. Cognitive neuropsychologist Jubin Abutalebi, at the University of San Raffaele in Milan, found it is possible to distinguish bilingual people from monolinguals simply by looking at scans of their brains. “Bilingual people have significantly more grey matter than monolinguals in their anterior cingulate cortex, and that is because they are using it so much more often,” he says. The ACC is like a cognitive muscle, he adds: the more you use it, the stronger, bigger and more flexible it gets.

One of the areas where the bilingual advantage appears to be most persistent isn’t related to a particular skill or task: it’s a general benefit that seems to help the ageing brain. Adults who speak multiple languages seem to resist the effects of dementia far better than monolinguals do. Psycholinguist Ellen Bialystok made the surprising discovery at York University in Toronto while she was comparing an ageing population of monolinguals and bilinguals.

Again and again, researchers have found, "bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime," in the words of Gigi Luk, an associate professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Nobody ever doubted the power of language. But who would have imagined that the words we hear and the sentences we speak might be leaving such a deep imprint?

A bilingual education is an asset well worth the investment.


Bhattacharjee, Y. (2012). Opinion | The Benefits of BilingualismNytimes.com. Retrieved 26 September 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html?mcubz=3

Bialystok, E., Craik, F., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends In Cognitive Sciences16(4), 240-250. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2012.03.001

Gross, N. (2016). Linguistic Experts Point to Benefits of Teaching Children Multiple Languages - Education Writers AssociationEwa.org. Retrieved 2 September 2017, from http://www.ewa.org/blog-latino-ed-beat/linguistic-experts-point-benefits-teaching-children-multiple-languages

Guerrero, D. (2016). Bilingual kids have multiple advantages, no matter what the languages are. HISD Multilingual Education. Retrieved from https://hisdmultilingual.wordpress.com/2017/01/18/bilingual-kids-have-multiple-advantages-no-matter-what-the-languages-are/

Kamenetz, A. (2016). 6 Potential Brain Benefits Of Bilingual EducationNPR.org. Retrieved 14 September 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/29/497943749/6-potential-brain-benefits-of-bilingual-education

Konnikova, M. (2015). Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage?Newyorker.com. Retrieved 26 September 2017, from https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/bilingual-advantage-aging-brain/amp

Thomas, Ph.D., W., & Collier, Ph.D., V. (2009). English Learners in North Carolina Dual Language Programs. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0K1-ZK0_vg5M0xOSXNtWC05aU0/view

Vince, G. (2016). The amazing benefits of being bilingualBbc.com. Retrieved 10 September 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160811-the-amazing-benefits-of-being-bilingual

Welham, D. (2017). Key Factors influencing Parents' Choice of School for their Children - Caloundra City Private SchoolCcps.qld.edu.au. Retrieved 26 September 2017, from https://ccps.qld.edu.au/blog/post/key-factors-influencing-parents-choice-of-school-for-their-children


I would love to read more like this, take me back to the blogs!