With an increasingly globalized workforce, it’s not unusual for children to grow up in an environment where more than one language is spoken. In fact, almost two thirds of world’s population is now bilingual, with 56% of Europeans speaking two or more tongues. It is reported that children in some African countries even manage more than a dozen linguistic systems on a daily basis. The number of bilingual children will no doubt continue to increase, but how does it affect their development?
Back in the 1960’s it was a commonly held view that raising bilingual children could lead to “linguistic confusion”, delaying their intellectual and academic development. Modern studies show that there is a certain amount of “interference” as both language systems are always active, creating situations where one language gets in the way of another. However researchers now know that this is actually a positive; being bilingual can not only make you smarter and more creative, but even protect you from dementia later in life.
Research Professor Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist from Toronto’s York University has been studying bilingualism and its effects on the brain for almost 40 years. In her opinion, speaking two languages can rewire our brains, helping it to form new neurons and strengthening the connections between different areas. It can also influence how we sort and digest information. When switching between two languages, the brain employs a cognitive system called the executive control system, whose job it is to resolve competition and focus attention. If you’re bilingual, you use this system all the time. She found that this can help to develop a variety of useful skills, such as planning, problem solving, being able to ignore distractions, withholding information, and a heightened ability to monitor the environment. Speaking two or more languages helps develop cognitive abilities, strengthening both convergent and divergent thinking skills.
Professor Bialystok’s research was recently confirmed by another study conducted by Dr Fraser Lauchlan from the University of Strathclyde. Dr Lauchlan studied the creative thinking and problem-solving abilities of 120 children from Scotland and Sardinia. Half of the children were bilingual, speaking Gaelic and English or Sardinian and Italian. He found that those speaking more than one language scored higher on creativity tests. They were able to demonstrate a deeper understanding of different concepts and used more extensive vocabulary when depicting them.
Just as bilingualism can help children be more creative, the very act of creating can also help ease the experience of finding their way through two or more languages. The Multilingual Children’s association advises using painting and modeling to create conversation and develop vocabulary. It also provides a channel for young children to manage their feelings and communicate their experiences.
Drawing, painting or making sculptures can help strengthen the brain’s “switching” process. This is crucial for navigating two or more languages and helps the brain to become more alert to subtle differences, meaning it can respond to changes more promptly and precisely. Even simple exercises such as drawing or painting one object from different angles or using new techniques can open your child’s mind to unconventional thinking and help her/him make small (but significant) steps towards better understanding of different linguistic systems.
Do you find art helpful with your young bilingual creator? Let us know below!
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