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Supercharge Your Child's Brain Power! A New BBC Video Reveals Surprising Benefits of Bilingualism

Updated: Feb 1



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Hello everyone!


Last weekend, I stumbled upon a fascinating BBC video that reveals some of less well-known cognitive benefits of bilingualism, delving into the latest research in this field.


In this post, I'll summarise some of the key insights and takeaways from this video, which I hope will be of interest to bilingual/ trilingual/ multilingual families out there.


Takeaway 1: Learning a new language is like mental exercise for your child’s brain


In this video, Professor Li Wei from the Institute of Education of UCL draws an interesting parallel between learning a new language and physical exercise.


Learning a new language is, in his words, “the mental equivalent of going to the gym every day. In the bilingual brain, all our languages are active, all at the same time. The continual effort of suppressing a language when speaking another, along with the mental challenge that comes with regularly switching between languages, exercises our brain.


He goes on to say that “it improves our concentration, problem-solving, memory, and in turn our creativity”.



According to Prof Li Wei from UCL, learning a new language is "the mental equivalent of going to the gym every day". A growing body of research is revealing the many cognitive and brain benefits of bilingualism
According to Prof Li Wei from UCL, learning a new language is "the mental equivalent of going to the gym every day"


These are all ESSENTIAL skills that will help a child excel in all areas of life, both in school and beyond.


And you, as a parent, can help boost these capabilities in your child’s brain simply by raising your child to be bilingual, trilingual or multilingual.


And here I just thought I’d share my own experience with you.


Juggling three writing systems (Chinese, English and Russian) helps our children excel in code-switching; bilingualism has benefits across many areas of learning
Juggling three writing systems (Chinese, English and Russian) helps our children excel in code-switching


Just the other day, my husband said to me that he’d noticed that having to juggle three languages and three different writing systems seems to make our children better at solving maths and English problems, too, as being trilingual seems to train their brains to recognise patterns and switch between systems.


For example, my son’s maths workbooks have “coding” exercises, where letters are represented by numbers or the other way round, and the child has to switch between the two systems to get to the correct answer.


I feel that my son is quite good at this sort of problem-solving because he’s very used to the idea of different symbols representing different concepts across different languages; this seems to have activated certain circuits in his brain that help him solve problems in realms outside of languages.


Takeaway 2: "Cognitive reserve" and its protective benefits


Many of you would have already heard that being bilingual is known to delay the onset of dementia by several years.


According to a landmark study by Ellen Bialystok, Fergus Craik and Morris Freedman, which investigated the relationship between bilingualism and the onset of dementia in elderly individuals, bilingual Alzheimer's patients showed symptoms of the disease 4-5 years later than monolingual patients, despite similar levels of brain pathology. This delay in symptom onset suggests a protective effect of bilingualism against dementia.


Scientific evidence suggests that being bilingual can delay the onset of dementia by up to 5 years - one of the many benefits of being fluent or able to speak more than one language
Scientific evidence suggests that being bilingual can delay the onset of dementia by up to 5 years


However, this new BBC video introduces a concept that was new to me: according to experts, the reason that bilingualism can delay the onset of dementia is due to something known as “cognitive reserve”, which is the idea that people develop a reserve of thinking abilities, and this protects them against losses that can occur through ageing and disease.


And cognitive reserve may also explain why bilingual people have been shown to recover significantly better after a stroke.


In other words, being fluent in more than one language not only improves people’s cognitive abilities but also offers a form of protection for your brain, making it more resilient against diseases such as dementia and strokes.




Being fluent in more than one language/ being bilingual may protect your brain against the effects of ageing and disease
Being fluent in more than one language may protect your brain against the effects of ageing and disease


Takeaway 3: Why learning a new language early might be best


Another interesting issue addressed in the BBC video relates to the optimum age at which to learn a new language.


(Feel free to check out my blog post and video on this topic!)



The video presents two different arguments: on the one hand, Professor Li Wei argues that when you’re learning a new language as a child, you’re essentially building new neural networks from scratch, whereas when you learn a language later in life, you have to modify the existing networks and make more connections, which means that the benefits for your brain can potentially be greater.


On the other hand, Dr Frederique Liegeois, also from UCL, puts forward the idea that the earlier you learn a language, the better connected your brain might be.



A Great Ormond Street Study: Early Bilinguals vs Later Bilinguals


This is based on a 2023 study at Great Ormond Street, where researchers studied three groups of children aged eight to 10.


One group consisted of monolinguals; a second group consisted of children who had been exposed to Greek and English from birth, referred to as the “early bilingual” group; and the third group consisted of children who had been exposed to English between the age of two and five, referred to as the “later bilingual” group.


The researchers asked the children to lie in a brain scanner while doing nothing, literally just staring at a cross.


What they found was that the “early bilingual” group had the strongest connectivity in their brain network at rest.


Dr Liegeois explains it like this: “It’s a little bit like if you’re going to the gym every day, your muscles might look bigger at rest”.



When is the best age to introduce a new language? According to the Great Ormond Street study, the "early bilingual" group demonstrated the strongest connections in their brain network at rest, suggesting that the earlier you start, the better
According to the Great Ormond Street study, the "early bilingual" group demonstrated the strongest connections in their brain network at rest


Again, we see that analogy to muscle-building – just as it is with muscles, the more you exercise your brain, the stronger it gets. And learning a new language is one of the best ways to give your brain a workout!


Takeaway 4: Seeing others’ perspectives and how we think differently in our first vs second language


Another super interesting insight from the video relates to a lesser-known behavioural effect of bilingualism.


The ability to speak more than one language is known to enhance one’s ability to look at things from other people’s perspectives and understand at a deeper level that it is possible to have different points of view.



Speaking more than one language may enhance people's ability to see thing from others' perspectives
Speaking more than one language may enhance people's ability to see thing from others' perspectives


Recent studies cited by the BBC video also found that people tend to react more emotionally in their first language, and more rationally, in a more abstract way, in their second language.


Studies cited the BBC found that people react more emotionally in their first language, and more rationally in their second language
Studies cited the BBC found that people react more emotionally in their first language, and more rationally in their second language


I think many of you reading this who are fluent in more than one language intuitively know this to be true - you may find that you think and feel differently when you use different languages.


That might explain why multilingual people often revert to their first language in highly emotive situations i.e. using swear words! I’m sure we can all recall some anecdotal examples!


My takeaway from this is that if you raise your child to speak more than one language, you’re equipping them with the capacity for more nuanced ways of thinking and looking at the world in different ways.


Conclusion


I hope this summary was useful, especially for those of you who may not be able to access the original video. It’s truly amazing how the latest research is constantly revealing new benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism.


I hope that you’ll feel even more motivated to raise your child to be bilingual, trilingual or multilingual so your child can reap all the cognitive, emotional and behavioural benefits that being fluent in more than one language can bring.


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