The first elder for whom I became a primary caregiver was my neighbor, Joe. He was born of Norwegian immigrant parents who spoke Norwegian at home. As a result, Joe needed to repeat first grade because he spent his first year in school learning English. While Joe went on to become a well educated engineer who spoke English with no Norwegian accent, in his later years he did occasionally talk about the challenges he faced as a Norwegian speaking child.
Joe’s experience of growing up in a home where a language other than English was hardly unusual since, historically, the U.S. has been populated by immigrants. What’s surprising to me is that when Joe was young, educators thought that he and others like him would be at an educational disadvantage.
Dr. Colin Baker, professor of Education at Bangor University, wrote in his 1993 book “Foundation of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism” that around a century ago it was believed that bilingualism could cause anything from language confusion to a “split personality.” Baker followed up with his 1995 book, “A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism.” In this book he noted that fifty years ago, educators across North America used to tell immigrant parents to discourage the use of their native language at home. Practicing a second language, it was believed, could hamper the children’s ability to absorb formal education.
Current thinking of bilingualism
According to a recent article on NPR.org, research has now found that people who were bilingual since childhood are better at the high-order thinking called executive function as they age. One of the latest studies on bilingualism was directed by Brian Gold, a neuroscientist at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine in Lexington. Gold’s premise was that people who spoke more than one language had an advantage and that this ability is good for the brain.
For his study, Gold had older people who grew up bilingual complete an attention-switching task which is a skill that typically fades with age. He found that bilingual seniors in his study were better at the task of quickly sorting colors and shapes than their monolingual peers.
To further prove his point, Gold then had the participant’s brains scanned as they performed their task. The scans showed that the brains of the monolingual seniors were working harder than the bilingual senior’s brains. In other words, bilingual senior’s brains were much more efficient – more like those of young adults. The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
The advantage is not only in education
It’s been accepted for some time by neuroscientists that having more reserve brain power from higher education often helps compensate for age-related declines in thinking and memory. This may help protect against the losses caused by Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. However, Gold’s study wasn’t about additional education. The study’s only focus was on the ability to speak more than one language since childhood. While Gold’s study is the most recent to be published on this topic, it’s not the only one that has affirmed the benefits of bilingualism.