Bilingual Children Develop Better Brains and Learn More Quickly
MindShift Labs expands its research to explore the possibility that bilingual education may be helping kids develop stronger brains that resist stimuli when they don’t have access to a partner language, possibly allowing them to better focus during class and on social and task-relevant activities.
The research will examine how children’s brains are conditioned to use another language when they learn the language as early as kindergarten. Possible findings could demonstrate that children’s brains are exposed to potentially distracting stimuli in the environment and skills are being developed at an earlier age to help them remain focused.
The MindShift Labs experiment involves taking a pool of English-speaking students to the Park Avenue College in New York in July 2015 to temporarily switch them to Spanish-speaking classrooms. Studying their brains in an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan, the researchers will attempt to discover how their brains will change at the age of two weeks when they know their surroundings and when they are introduced to another language to further develop the impulse to use that language to engage with peers, learn better, and focus during class and when they are engaged in social and task-relevant activities.
“In our children we have found some amazing things. They learn from their environment. With bilingual people we can be more tolerant, they are more aware of what’s going on in the world and able to interact with each other. If we are able to explore how languages shape the brains of children, there may be some benefits to increasing their ability to be in the moment,” said Jamshed Kajan J. Diaz, PhD, director of Research for MindShift Labs and associate professor of neuroscience and psychology in the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“It would be interesting to determine which of the changes you are seeing in the children who go through that test are due to being bilingual or bilingual environmental cues. The changes that are reflected in their brains will look very different depending on which part of the brain processes it. At this point we are still being sure that that is something we can do in a lab and will be more comfortable after testing in the park,” said Sarmir Ghafaee, co-principal investigator of the study.
The study will begin at the park near City Hall of New York and will be a privately funded, two-week experiment. It will involve 400 students in grades kindergarten through eighth at the New York City Department of Education’s World Language Primary Program as well as 400 students in the Corpus Christi College Academy. A third group will also be studied at a later date when they are 2- to 3-years-old. All children will learn English, Spanish, or both together. A control group will be included in the study at the early age when they have not been introduced to the other language. The brain scans will be taken in the park on two different days. One day will consist of the children learning English and one day will include them learning Spanish. The children will be moved around in a play environment in the park with parents and other bilingual kids in an effort to simulate what they are doing in the classroom at the beginning of the summer. Researchers will use functional magnetic resonance imaging, commonly referred to as an MRI.
Research at MindShift Labs believes that there could be a potential benefit to children who learn another language in the initial age where their brains are being first exposed to the language they are learning. The IQ of children who are bilingual often exceeds the intelligence of native-speakers. While the actual benefits of bilingualism to cognitive functioning are still not known, research in some schools in the United States is attempting to evaluate the benefits of bilingualism. Most evidence points to the fact that bilingual students have more well-developed memories than those who do not learn another language. In other words, bilinguals develop better memories, are better at remembering facts, and can make better decisions because of the fluency of their brains when learning another language.