“More than half the world is bilingual,” states Bar-Ilan University linguistics professor emeritus Joel Walters.
“People often think one language is better. It’s not. Two is better. We believe two languages are good for everybody and good for society.”
In Israel, with many immigrants among a population of about 9 million, it’s common for children to be immersed in languages such as Russian, English, French or Amharic at home while being immersed in Hebrew at daycare and school.
Walters and other experts interviewed by ISRAEL21c agree that raising children with a home (“heritage”) language different from the outside (“societal”) language offers many advantages – even though the opposite perception persists.
“It’s a myth that bilingualism is confusing,” says Aviya Hacohen, a lecturer in Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics. “It’s actually the best gift you can give your child.”
Here are the main reasons why.
Advantage 1: Cultural fluency
“Bilinguals are exposed not just to more than one language but also more than one culture,” says Prof. Sharon Armon-Lotem from Bar-Ilan’s Department of English Literature and Linguistics and Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center.
“If we want to raise children with an awareness of multiculturalism in their environment, bilingualism or multilingualism is a great way to do this. They already know there is more than a single way to look at life.”
Bilinguals’ own cultural identity, says Armon-Lotem, “can be richer in terms of belonging, complex in a positive manner.”
“We believe two languages are good for everybody and good for society.”
One bilingual participant in a Bar-Ilan study, for instance, described himself as “a Yemenite who eats gefilte fish.”
Prof. Michal Icht, chair of the Department of Communication Disorders at Ariel University, points out that “bilinguals know how to talk to people from different cultures.”
“This is a global world,” Icht says.
“When you travel, it’s easier to communicate when you have more than one language. And if you have family members, such as grandparents, who speak one language that is not your societal language, you can communicate with them.”
Advantage 2: Ease in learning languages
Hacohen defines true bilingualism as learning two first languages from the earliest years.
She describes herself as an “unbalanced bilingual” because her American mother spoke to her only in Hebrew until her teen years.
“As a result, I don’t have good intuitions and judgments in English,” she says.
“The window of opportunity for acquiring two languages as a first language may start closing at age three or four, earlier than previously thought,” says Hacohen. “After that, proficiency won’t be the same as monolingual native speakers.”
Balanced bilinguals find it easier to learn a third or fourth language later, says Hacohen.
“Because bilingual children are always outside of at least one of their languages, they have a more developed ability to think about language from the outside and make judgments [about usage] that monolingual children cannot make,” she explains.
Armon-Lotem says that familiarity with more than one system of sounds and rules may be what gives bilinguals an advantage when acquiring another language.
“These children have a broader arsenal of sounds” — like the Hebrew kh or English th — that enable a wider perspective,” she says.
Advantage 3: Flexible thinking, communication
“Code switching” between each language’s different sounds and morphology (word structures and relationships) gives bilingual children more flexibility in thought and expression, says Icht.
She works with many bilingual preschoolers in her private speech-language pathology practice.
“If I’m talking in Hebrew to an English-Hebrew bilingual and point to a glass and ask what it is, the child has to inhibit the English response that comes to his mind first and realize he has to say ‘cos’ instead of ‘glass’ because I asked in Hebrew.”
Overall, she says, “The ability to express the same idea in different ways is important.”
“Bilingual kids can very easily code switch, speaking to one parent in one language and one parent in another. They are aware of different ways to communicate and deliver a message.”
Other possible advantages
While everyone agrees on the above three advantages, bilinguals may have other advantages in the realm of brain science that need further study.
Sharper executive functions?
One debate is whether bilingualism improves “executive functions” such as planning, paying attention, shutting out distractions, remembering instructions and making decisions.
Some studies relate to the “Stroop effect,” where someone has difficulty naming a color used to spell the name of a different color (like the word “blue” written in red).
“Usually, it takes longer to respond about the mismatched items because the color interferes with the word,” Hacohen explains. “In bilinguals, the response may be faster because they’re better at inhibiting those interferences.”
Other studies suggest that bilinguals more easily ignore background noise and more easily decipher artificially generated speech.
Armon-Lotem says that although it’s tempting to believe bilinguals reap lifelong executive function benefits, studies published to date are not robust and should be taken with a grain of salt.
She’s comfortable stating only that “at some stages of development you might find an edge.”
Bilingualism and dementia
Here’s one that seems like an advantage but may not be: Symptoms of dementia in bilingual elders tend to be noticed at a later stage than in monolinguals.
“There is no evidence that bilingualism delays development of dementia but that the signs are identified later,” Armon-Lotem explains.
“Perhaps the bilingual brain copes better with the initial phases of cognitive decline. If that is true, we’re not sure if that’s good or bad,” because it can lead to a later diagnosis, she notes.
But in other types of brain injury, this coping ability may be advantageous.
Icht says she once observed a bilingual Arab brain trauma patient who’d lost his fluent Hebrew but was still able to communicate in Arabic.
“It’s reasonable to assume that if you know more ways to express yourself, then you can express yourself better if you have neural damage of any kind,” she says.
At Bar-Ilan, one area of research is identifying and aiding bilingual kids who are among the 7% of children with difficulty in word retrieval and grammar due to Developmental Language Disorder (DLD).
Bilingualism does not cause DLD, Walters explains, but “when children with DLD are bilingual, it’s tough to identify them because people assume it’s just because they’re learning two languages at once.”
One existing therapeutic technique, bilingual narrative intervention (BiNARI), trains bilingual children with and without DLD to tell stories as a vehicle to enrich their word and sentence skills in both languages.
Carmit Altman, head of the Child Development Program in Bar-Ilan’s Faculty of Education and co-director of Bilingualism Matters Israel, is hosting an international BiNARI workshop at Bar-Ilan’s Gonda Brain Sciences Research Center, February 21-23.
“We have been looking at whether it’s better to intervene first in the home language or first in the societal language,” Altman tells ISRAEL21c.
“We got two grants — one from the Israel Science Foundation, with Joel Walters, to examine whether intervention in the home language first assists bilingual children with and without DLD; and one from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation, with Sharon Armon-Lotem and Adelaida Maria Restropo, to investigate what happens if we intervene first in the societal language or even in a mixed manner, using one language one day and the other language on another day,” she explains.
“Nobody has compared these models of intervention yet. We hope it will give us more evidence about how things are stored and carried over in the bilingual brain.”
A deeper understanding of the brain science of bilingualism could reveal additional advantages to this “greatest gift to children.”
Read more at the Israeli website of Bilingualism Matters, hosted at Bar-Ilan.