January 27, 2011, Updated September 12, 2012

Bilingual children show greater cognitive flexibility and have an advantage over kids who speak only one language, according to University of Haifa researchers.

The study found that children who speak two languages can easily learn a third, and can raise their IQ while doing so. Researchers also showed that those with Russian as a first language are more fluent in Hebrew compared to those who speak Hebrew as a mother tongue.

“Learning a mother tongue and preserving it do not come at the expense of learning another language,” said Prof. Salim Abu Rabiya and Ektarina Sanitzki of the special education department at the University of Haifa. “The opposite is true. Speaking Russian only strengthens one’s Hebrew, and fluency in these two languages improves one’s ability to speak English.”

The research confirms what bilingualism supporters have long believed: that learning two or more languages at a young age does not cram the brains of children with too many words but rather gives them an edge.

The study showed that children who spoke both Hebrew and Russian found it easier to learn English, compared to pupils who knew only Hebrew.

The researchers showed that knowing a number of languages improves fluency in one’s native tongue because speaking several languages bolsters a person’s language skills. Prof. Abu Rabiya said that the younger one learns languages, the better. He also pointed out that skill in language is an important cognitive function that makes it easier to learn in general.

The University of Haifa study based its findings on two groups of sixth grade students learning English as a foreign language. The first group had 40 pupils, all immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whose native tongue was Russian and who learned Hebrew afterwards. The second group included 42 Hebrew speakers studying English as a second language in school.

The results showed that native Russian speakers had significantly better control than the native Hebrew speakers not only of the English they learned, but also of the Hebrew they had previously learned as a second tongue.

Moreover, the Russian speakers, who had the same average IQ as the Hebrew speakers before they started learning English, raised their IQ scores by an average of seven percent after studying the additional tongue. And this, summarized the researchers, proved that the more languages one learns, the higher one’s IQ.

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