The Beautiful Bilingual Brain

in Education, Information

The young mind; it’s nothing short of miraculous. Parents and educators of preschool children have front row seats to one of the greatest blossoming of the natural world.  Science consistently reminds us that babies are born with a staggering capacity to learn, over 86 billion neurons worth of potential at birth.  The brain begins to streamline itself, and remove unused neural pathways drastically, up until the age of six. It is within these critical first six years that a child’s mind is building the architecture of the neural pathways that will serve them throughout their entire life.

Access to language is the ultimate birthright of the brain and research proves time and again that rich early language exposure leads to more robust communication, creativity and problem-solving. However, nothing has shown to have as measurably profound of an impact on the processes that are directly linked to higher intelligences than that of the developing, agile bilingual brain.

Without question, science tells us the greatest gift of all to this developing brain is to offer it the opportunity to consistently and strategically learn a second language in the first six years of life.  Ideally, this development continues through elementary school and beyond to produce a fully bi-literate person, one who is confident and comfortable moving across languages and cultures with improved intellectual functions.

Leading researchers in the field of bilingualism claim that most of the measurable advantages of a bilingual brain stem from the fact that the child is maintaining two active languages at the same time. By inhibiting one to activate the other, the brain learns how to code- switch; a kind of neural CrossFit training that constantly employs and animates key executive functioning skills.

In a 2017 study from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS), bilingual babies, at 11 months, demonstrate that their brains are responding with great linguistic discernment and capacity to two languages. (Ferjan Ramírez, Ramírez, Clarke, Taulu, & Kuhl, 2017). Bilingual children, as they mature, consistently outperform monolinguals on tests of attention, working memory, task-switching, problem solving (both speed and accuracy) and critical thinking skills. A highly regarded study that only measured for academic performance, followed bilingual and monolingual students through the Portland, OR School District for six years. The study found, contrary to false assumptions, that bilingual students were reading almost a full grade above their monolingual peers in English (Steele et al., 2017).

When considering the absolute need, in 2018, to develop compassionate, intelligent global citizens, an often cited research study shows that bilingual children are better able to understand the perspective of the speaker. The bilingual child considers exactly what the meaning is of the person addressing them without making assumptions based on their own biased perspective.

A culturally intelligent and linguistically agile child will no doubt feel well-placed in their future world, a 21st century world where the landscape is loudly calling for people just like them.  The bilingual child is unaware of the fantastic and fertile cultivation happening in their minds because their linguistic learning is innate.

They negotiate their way through their day talking to different people in different languages with purpose, playfulness and compassion, unaware of the lifelong brilliance being structured within their curious young minds.

The first Quaker Friends school in Washington, International Friends School opens in fall, 2018 with its inaugural class of 3 and 4 year olds in Bellevue, WA. They then grow a grade until 8th grade. All children will learn Mandarin & English in a dual-language program with strong Spanish proficiency.

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Come see International Friends School Co-founder Alli Frank speak at Parent Workshop: The Beautiful Bilingual Brain on May 16 from 6-8pm.