Will being bilingual make my baby smarter?

Does being bilingual make you a more creative thinker?

 

The effects of a bilingual upbringing never really interested me until the birth of our daughter. Even though I worked in international schools with multilingual children, I never weighed up the merits and disadvantages of such a background. We had decided before she was born that our daughter would be brought up with both languages (Dutch and English). We don’t have a grand plan, my husband and his family speak Dutch, I speak English, my family live in England and that is how the languages will be divided up. Now our daughter is starting to speak ‘baby-language it seemed that the time had come to do some proper research……

 

What is bilingualism?

More than half the world’s population is now bilingual but what is the definition of bilingualism?

In 2013, I attended the conference ‘Bilingualism in Primary Schools’ in Laren/ Hilversum, The Netherlands.

The keynote speaker was Gregory Poarch, an authority on bilingualism. https://gregpoarch.wordpress.com/

His opening question was to ask those who considered themselves bilingual to raise their hands. I was attending the conference with three colleagues. One had American parents but had attended primary school in The Netherlands, moved to America and returned to The Netherlands. Another had Dutch parents and had been brought up in Tanzania, attending school in English and now lived in The Netherlands. The last was Dutch, had learnt English at school and used English at work. I have a Dutch mother and an English father, was brought up bilingually until the age of four, when the primary school told my mother that bilingualism would damage my ability to speak English properly……

Out of the four of us, only one hand was raised, that of the person who had learnt English at school.

The other three stared at him in disbelief, his sentence structure was often incorrect, his pronunciation was passable at best and yet he considered himself bilingual!

The next question is why we three, who to all intents and purposes were bilingual, didn’t consider ourselves to be so.

Gregory Poarch then went on to explain that bilingualism is a continuum and not a final state. Therefore, there are different degrees to which you can be bilingual.

For my colleague who considered himself bilingual, the definition was to be able to communicate effectively. Which he could.

For me, perfection is required. I still make mistakes in my Dutch grammar and there are words that I cannot pronounce correctly however hard I practice. Therefore I consider myself to be a fluent speaker of Dutch but not quite bilingual yet.

 

How to bring up a child with multiple languages

I have noticed through my teaching experience that multilingualism is a thing not well understood. I remember being confronted by an angry parent when I was a specialist ESL teacher in a Dutch school. The mother wanted me to explain to her why her child had received such a poor report (he scored average in all areas) when she was English. I was amazed, I had no idea this child had an English mother. He never spoke in the lessons and I never really had the idea that he could understand what I was saying. I immediately assumed that the child was bored at the low level of teaching as the rest of the class were all beginners. I asked the mother if she could send in some of the stories she was reading with him at home. “I don’t read with him in English” she replied.  I asked if she could tell me what they spoke about together in English, in the hope that I could coax something out of him. “I don’t speak English with him!” she said. I was flabbergasted, this parent evidently assumed that being able to speak English was genetic, she could, therefore her son could……

 

In the keynote, we also learned that language learning is down to exposure, the more you are exposed to a language, the more chance you have of learning it.

The child in the example above, had no more exposure to English than his peers, therefore his level was linked purely to his ability to learn a language by being taught it.

I have also had a child in the class who was being brought up with four languages. Mother’s language, father’s language, Dutch from going to the crèche and after school care and English at school. This was a very confused child, with no base language. In fact, her best language was Dutch, which neither of her parents spoke.

She had gone to the crèche 5 days a week since she was a young infant and so the language she had had the most exposure to was Dutch.

Young children can learn multiple languages. I have seen children speaking to their mother in one language, answering their father in another language and then coming into the classroom and speaking to their classmates in a third language without batting an eyelid. However, they need to have a solid foundation in at least one language.

Children can differentiate with who they speak which language and in which setting.

Often each parent speaks their own language with the child. When taking into consideration the importance of exposure to a language, the parent with the minority language (generally not the language of the country they are living in), would have to work extra hard. The child will also be exposed to the other language outside the home.

 

Do bilingual babies have better brains?

The effects of bilingualism appear to take place almost from birth. Extraordinary experiments – involving electric sensors in babies’ dummies – suggested that infants only a few months old can distinguish one language from the next. Eight-month-old infants are able to distinguish the facial expressions of one language from another. If such “enhanced perceptual attentiveness” is evident so early on, it’s perhaps not surprising that the bilingual brain seems to be wired differently. The joys and benefits of bilingualism- Tobias Jones

Gregory Poarch went on to say that bilingual children often had a lower vocabulary in each language than monolingual children (possibly explaining the reasoning behind my primary school’s recommendation…..), but that they had a larger vocabulary overall, just spread over two languages.

Fortunately current thinking is now that bilingualism acquired in Early Childhood is beneficial, not only because you can communicate with more people but because it helps develop flexible thinking skills.

Research at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, suggests babies who are bilingual at a young age are “flexible thinkers” and are more open to learning for a longer period of time compared to monolingual infants. The finding also showed that bilingual children are faster than monolingual children at switching between different sets of rules.

Children who grow up with two languages have the ability to see more than one solution to a problem, said Fredreic Field, CSUN English professor.

“If you know that you can express a particular idea in two languages, for example, then it’s easier to see that there can be many, creative ways to solve a problem,” Field said.  “People who only speak one language sometimes come to believe that there is only one, correct way to express an idea.”

During the keynote, it was explained that bilinguals have a lexicon of words to go through when speaking a language. A sort of word-web in the mind. This could explain why bilinguals sometimes struggle to find a word in a particular language.

Another reason could be that sometimes a word in a particular language ‘suits’ better, it has the right feel to it and truly encompasses what you want to say, whereas the translation falls somewhat short of the mark.

I spoke to Gregory Poarch after the session and we came to the conclusion that I am a visual-learner. I don’t see words, I see pictures. This also explains why I am terrible at translating (another reason I assume myself not to be bilingual). I cannot translate a word for you, I cannot tell you what that word is in any of the other languages I speak, but I can probably draw it for you…….

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, scientific research seems to swing back and forth on whether or not bilingualism gives cognitive advantages. Social advantages, certainly. Should you raise your child bilingually if you have the chance to? That decision is up to you, I certainly am going to raise my daughter with two languages . Whether or not having a second language is going to make her a more creative thinker, is less relevant to me than her ability to speak with all members of her family in their own language. English is a world language and so even though mine is the ‘minority’ language, I feel that it will get enough external exposure to make it worthwhile.