Learning a second language can have benefits for our brain that go far beyond language itself. And when it comes to young children, research is continuing to show how picking up a second language can change the way they think and develop cognitive skills during a critically important time for brain development.
One recent study at the University of Oregon showed children aged four and younger who could speak two languages displayed greater inhibitory control than their monolingual counterparts. Inhibitory control is our ability to stop ourselves from reacting to a situation hastily and instead applying a more adaptive response.
Unsurprisingly, children who started off bilingual during the experiment started off with higher scores. But children who learned a second language by the end of the experiment showed rapid gains in inhibitory control compared to those who stayed monolingual.
“The development of inhibitory control occurs rapidly during the preschool years,” said study co-author, Atika Khurana, a professor at the University of Oregon. “Children with strong inhibitory control are better able to pay attention, follow instructions and take turns. This study shows one way in which environmental influences can impact the development of inhibitory control during younger years.”
For this study, researchers sampled 1,146 children and assessed their inhibitory control levels at the start of the experiment. They then followed the children for 18 months and scored them again based on their language ability: those who spoke only English; those who spoke both Spanish and English; and those who spoke only Spanish at the start of the study but were fluent in both English and Spanish at the end.
The test itself was comprised of a common task for assessing inhibitory control in youths. The participant is told to tap a pencil on a desk twice when the experimenter taps once, and vice-versa. This requires the student to suppress the immediate impulse to mimic the experimenter and do the opposite instead.
Students in this study came from low socioeconomic backgrounds – a group known to be at-risk for poorer outcomes. But the the study shows how bilingualism can help preschool children improve their cognitive function rapidly and gain valuable and lasting skills in executive decision-making.
In an interview with the Independent, author of “The Secret Life of the Mind: How Your Brain Thinks, Feels, and Decides” Marian Sigman explained just how learning a second language at a young age can have lasting effects for people throughout their lives:
“…The one thing we know is that bilinguals are much better in cognitive control than monolinguals. Many, many studies have found that cognitive control is one of the most decisive variables, one of the most important pieces of cognitive function. People that have good cognitive control do good at school, typically find better jobs, are healthier. They have better social insertion.”