Before the 1960s, bilingualism was considered a handicap for children learning to speak because they had to expend too much energy distinguishing between languages. In fact, more modern research has shown that this energy helps with a number of executive functions, like being able to focus and problem-solving.
When you use two or more languages to communicate, your brain works differently: two parts of your brain are active – for speaking and writing and the other two parts are passive – for listening and reading.
There are three specific types of bilingualism:
A compound bilingual is a child who develops two languages simultaneously: many of the children at IMS already have two native languages they are learning at home, neither of which may be Spanish or English. When they come to school they are immersed in those two languages as well, and will absorb vocabulary from both languages.
A coordinate bilingual is someone who uses two languages in two different contexts (like school and home). Older students who have moved to a new country are often described as this.
A subordinate bilingual – the case for many adults – is someone who filters a new language through their first. This is why learning several languages simultaneously is so effortless for small children: they are using both sides of their brain, and appear to have a more holistic grasp of social and emotional contexts in each language. Being bilingual gives your brain remarkable advantages, with a higher density of grey matter that contains neurons and synapses. This heightened activity has been attributed to the delay in onset of degenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimers.
It is pretty clear that apart from the advantage of actually being able to speak more than one language, the route and method by which young children learn several languages simultaneously contributes to other cognitive advantages: it improves memory and attention. Working memory – which is the temporary storage of information – tends to be better in bilingual children than monolingual ones.
So, whilst being bilingual doesn´t necessarily make you smarter, it does make the brain more healthy, cognitive and actively engaged.
Give your children a head start in life and introduce them to another language as young as possible.