Does being bilingual make you smarter? Boy, that’s a loaded question! Conventional wisdom and popular belief have gone back and forth on this through the years, and even science offers us a less-than-direct answer at times.
Let’s take a look at some of the facts as we know them.
1. Bilingualism gives the brain a cognitive workout.
The bilingual brain is one tough cookie!
A 2009 study by Ellen Bialystok, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, showed that bilingual people have better control over their cognitive function. (source)
What exactly does that mean?? Well, it means that if you’re bilingual, your brain is really great at doing multiple things at once! Pat your head and rub your tummy? No problem! Hearing spoken words + seeing written words, then recalling which was actually spoken vs. written? Yep!
Switching smoothly from Spanish to English and back again without missing a beat? That’s the workout I was talking about. Reading, speaking, and listening to another language is the equivalent of brain calisthenics! All that work means the bilingual brain is primed to be amazing at critical thinking, problem-solving, and paying attention to important details.
For a long time, many people thought that kids would get “confused” by hearing multiple languages in the home. Not true!!
Sometimes, what people observe as “slower” language development in young bilingual children is just a symptom of the brain learning twice as many words. I’d bet that if you had to learn twice as many math equations as your peers, it would take you a bit longer too 🙂
So, just because your bilingual child may be producing language a bit slower than his or her peers, it doesn’t mean they’ll be behind forever! Their brains are just taking extra time to process all the sounds from both languages.
3. Bilingual kids are gifted with a higher cultural “intelligence”.
When a person grows up with two languages, they become aware of the world in a special way. Language and culture are so closely entwined, so it makes sense that bilingual kids would have a broader global awareness than their single-language peers.
We’ve all heard the astounding statement that Eskimos have over 100 words for snow, right (it’s actually true!)? I’d wager a bet that children in equatorial Africa very rarely hear, use, or know their language’s word for snow (if there even is one!). Growing up in the Midwestern United States, my vocabulary on the sport cricket is quite limited! Had I grown up with a Punjabi-speaking parent from India, I’d probably know a bit more of the lingo 🙂
So, are bilingual kids actually smarter?
There are definite benefits to being bilingual! Bilingual kids can be awesome problem-solvers, great empathizers, and they often excel at academic subjects like math (source). When it gets down to measuring actual intelligence…well, that’s where the science gets kind of fuzzy. It also opens up a whole other philosophical can of worms that asks “what is intelligence, anyway?” 🧐
As a language educator and bilingual mom, I don’t need science to prove it to me, though! Common sense tells us that in today’s global society, the more languages, the merrier! I can’t tell you how many times I hear my adult peers express regret at only knowing English. So, don’t give up and keep exposing your children to languages. It might take time, but they’ll be sure to thank you someday.
Leigh Ann Zerr is a dual language educator, blogger and mom. She resides in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband, daughter, and dogs, and travels every chance she gets.
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