Do multilingual children have an advantage in building their brains?

Research is mixed on the brain benefits.
Published: Jan. 5, 2021 at 6:08 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 5, 2021 at 7:45 PM EST
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -Research does not make it clear that learning a second language will make your baby a young genius.

Experts say learning another language will have many positive effects. While some research is mixed on the way language builds a young brain, many families are embracing two or even more languages in one household as children grow.

Knoxville mother Stefanie von Gall said she and her husband, who both grew up in Southern Germany, speak German as the first language in their home with 8-year-old Paul, 4-year-old Zoe and 2-year-old Max. Yet, they read and teach the children in both German and English, as well as finding other outlets for language immersion.

She says Max is already understanding both languages. “So we have play dates outside and I read a lot of books with him. We listen to audiobooks as well.”

Knoxville mother Claudio Cartajena and her husband support the learning of three languages in their home with daughter Sofia and a younger brother or sister on the way. “Because it’s so important. It’s part of who we are.”

Cartajena grew up in Chile and her husband is from Laos. They each speak their native language to their daughter. Yet, she also hears a lot of English at home. “When I’m with my husband he doesn’t speak Spanish and I don’t speak Laotian, so we communicate to each other in English.”

Do multilingual children have an advantage in building their brains? Depends on which study you read from university researchers.

At the University of Tennessee, Nils Jaekel, Ph.D. worked on a study of children that found a second language did not improve their ability to concentrate and solve problems. “Our study is in line with many other studies that have found there not to be advantage on these executive functions.”

At the University of Washington, researcher Naja Ferjan Remirez, Ph.D. completed a study showing stronger brain responses in areas responsible for executive function.

Remirez says it is never too early to start letting babies soak up multiple languages. “If we give babies an opportunity to experience a second language during infancy and early childhood, they will be able to, and should be able to develop native-like fluency.”

Dr. Jaekel said that although his research shows that lack of a certain brain-boosting advantage, there are still many benefits to teaching children multiple languages. “Cultural exposure is a huge benefit. There are literacy benefits that have been shown. So, speaking a second language does have an influence on your literacy skills in your first language as well.” He also noted language skills can be beneficial in the competitive job market. Jaekel said his family practices a multilingual home for his own children.

Both East Tennessee mothers say they feel strongly about the cultural and family connections that language brings.

“Because it was so important that he understands his relatives overseas,” said von Gall of language benefits for her young son and all of her children.

Cartajena said even if her daughter doesn’t become fluent in Laotian, “We still want her to learn some words just to introduce the culture and the language there.”

Your local public library is a free resource for books and multimedia materials to teach a second language.

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