My experience as a bilingual educator has convinced me that a bilingual education is a gift for life. This experience is also supported by research that proves that being bilingual helps to develop cognitive and communicative abilities.
A bilingual education shapes the brain differently by establishing different connections in the brain. Therefore, the cognitive networks of bilingual students are organized differently. To reach this conclusion, neuroscientists from the University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania have used both behavioral methods and neuroimaging (MRI of bilingual and monolingual students engaging in a task). The neuroimaging shows that minds of bilingual students are organized differently. The experience of having to manage two languages reorganizes the brain networks and creates a greater activation of neural regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning – the capacity to control and regulate working memory, sustained attention, attention switching, and information processing. To assess executive functioning, researchers studied the ability to switch tasks and inhibit all types of distractions. Students were given a variety of problems to solve that involved multiple tasks, some of which contained perceptual distraction. Bilingual students outperformed not only at switching tasks, but also at ignoring distracting perceptual information and ignoring misleading information. On such tests, bilingual students consistently scored higher than monolingual students.
The researchers concluded that bilingual students master two language systems that are activated in their minds at all times. Throughout the day, they must choose to activate or deactivate one or more languages. Their executive control system has to choose which language to select. It needs to inhibit the distraction of the other language. Therefore, there is a significant cognitive outcome to this linguistic inhibition: bilingual students have significantly enhanced executive control. This is not only proven through tests, but also through MRI imaging that show greater activity in that region of the brain. Executive function supports high-level thoughts, multi-tasking, sustained attention, generating strategies, and interpreting new information.
This is the key to explain why bilingual students:
Maintain attention to the task at hand
Ignore misleading information
Have mental flexibility (ability to adapt and to process information effectively)
Are superior in concept formation
Are good decision makers
Have improved memory and working memory
Build multi-tasking skills
Are excellent critical thinkers.
Bilingual students are also better communicators. The key to good communication is understanding others’ perspectives, so that they can be reached through your communication.
Bilingual students are better at understanding the perspectives of others, because bilingual children have daily social experiences that provide routine practice in this skill. Multiple times during the day, bilingual students need to decide which language to choose. They need to read social cues to figure out which language to choose with which person and in what setting. They ask themselves: Should I ask for a blue pencil or un crayon bleu? It makes them more perceptive and more able to understand others. They also have to understand two very different cultures, two very different sets of expectations from different teachers. This allows them to understand others' perspectives. This understanding of others allows them to be better communicators - better at collaborating, at managing conflicts, and at leading others to achieve a common goal.
Developing these cognitive and communicative abilities is key, particularly in today's world that is evolving so fast. In fact, educators are uncertain of the knowledge and skills that current preschool students will need in twenty years, as in all likelihood they will hold jobs that do not yet exist. In my opinion, a bilingual education is therefore the only education students can receive. It imparts the most important knowledge and skills that are timeless.
A broad humanistic culture including history, art, and philosophy – keys to making informed decisions
A strong mathematical and scientific background
Excellent written and oral communication skills in at least two languages
A deep understanding of concepts.
The ability to make connections
These skills and knowledge are natural outcomes of a bilingual education that prepares our students for tomorrow’s world.
By Barbara Greiner, Former Head of School