Bilingualism is ever more common in today's world. Globalisation makes it easier for people to travel and work overseas. Therefore the opportunity for people from two completely different cultures to find each other has never been so easy.
Giving a child the chance to learn multiple languages from an early age is one of the most amazing gifts a parent can give. Being bilingual opens up so many more doors in life, but it isn't just the job opportunities that are created.
Bilingual children, not only do better at school in languages, but they also do better in education in general.
Research has shown that bilingual children often out perform their monolingual peers purely on the basis that they are better able to focus and ignore distractions during lessons. These higher concentration levels are often found in bilingual adults, especially those who became bilingual at an early age.
The training of the brain during the early years enables adults to filter out irrelevant information and stimuli. Learning multiple languages from birth also promotes cognitive functioning in the brain. It is for this reason that bilinguals tend to be better problem solvers and are able to multitask more effectively.
Research by Dr. Kuhl at the University of Washington, using imaging equipment such as MEG, shows that bilingual babies are "more cognitively flexible" than monolingual babies.
Adult language learning
It is common knowledge that language acquisition becomes more and more difficult as we age. Many adults do not even attempt to learn new languages as they assume they have no chance of succeeding. Whilst it is harder, it isn't impossible.
Memory recall degrades as we get older but more significantly it is the way in which we learn languages as adults that makes them more difficult to pick up. Babies are able to easily switch between languages purely on the basis of tone and intonation. A baby's brain is simply more ‘geared-up' to acquire language.
More ‘language acquiring' brain cells exist for this sole purpose. Millions in fact. This higher volume of active language cells allow babies and young children to distinguish between several hundred different sounds and tones. As we get older we lose this ability and learning new sounds alone, can be incredibly difficult.
Adults, unless particularly gifted, use a comparison technique to learn and recall; translating from their native language into their second language. This is slower and often takes much more practice (often many years). Grammatical errors as a result of direct translation are commonplace and difficult to overcome.
Whilst we may eventually achieve fluency, we are often inhibited from ever being able to truly sound like a native in the second language.
Much research continues to be undertaken on the bilingual brain as a contributor to the delaying of the onset of Alzheimer's disease and dementia. It has been discovered that bilingual adults have denser brain tissue and the brain structure in terms of connectivity is very different.
What is most interesting about this recent research is that the biggest difference appears to be in adults who became bilingual from birth up to 5 years of age.
There is another aspect however, neither related to health nor academic achievement. The learning of a second language can teach children about diversity and different cultures.
They are more likely to understand the often conflicting cultural differences that many adults are never able to truly grasp. Understanding and acceptance of all people and their beliefs are arguably amongst the most important traits and characteristics that our children need in today's world.