If you’re a parent, you instinctively want what’s best for your children.
Science says: Encourage them to learn another language.
In recent years, scientists and researchers have made breakthroughs in their understanding of bilingualism. In the past, experts thought that learning a second language was an “interference” that hindered children’s academic and intellectual development. But in a New York Times article entitled “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter,” Yudhijit Bhattacharjee explains why this interference is actually a good thing:
They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.
Bhattacharjee cites research that indicates that “the bilingual experience” improves children’s abilities to perform other mentally demanding tasks, such as plan, solve problems, and stay focused.
But as a parent, you’re probably looking for more than just “smart” for your kids. How many of us want genius children who simply can’t relate to others? Can learning another language help children develop better social skills, too?
Here’s where it gets interesting.
GOOD FOR SOCIAL SKILLS, TOO
Katherine Kinzler, an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, published a new piece for the New York Times this weekend entitled, “The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals.” Recent research from Kinzler’s developmental psychology lab indicates that “multilingual exposure improves not only children’s cognitive skills but also their social abilities.”
For example, one study illustrates how multilingual children demonstrate better general communication skills than monolingual children:
We took a group of children in the United States, ages 4 to 6, from different linguistic backgrounds, and presented them with a situation in which they had to consider someone else’s perspective to understand her meaning. For example, an adult said to the child: “Ooh, a small car! Can you move the small car for me?” Children could see three cars–small, medium and large–but were in position to observe that the adult could not see the smallest car. Since the adult could see only the medium and large cars, when she said “small” car, she must be referring to the child’s “medium.”
We found that bilingual children were better than monolingual children at this task. If you think about it, this makes intuitive sense. Interpreting someone’s utterance often requires attending not just to its content, but also to the surrounding context. What does a speaker know or not know? What did she intend to convey? Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others: They have to think about who speaks which language to whom, who understands which content, and the times and places in which different languages are spoken.
In essence, children who speak other languages are more in tune with others.
What about children who speak only one language, but are regularly exposed to another?
Kinzler’s lab found that “children who were effectively monolingual yet regularly exposed to another language–for example, those who had grandparents who spoke another language–were just as talented as the bilingual children at this task.” (Italics mine.) However, Kinsey reports that the “exposure” children didn’t perform better than other monolinguals on cognitive tasks.
In other words, simply putting your children in touch with another language (even if they don’t learn to speak it fluently) may not necessarily increase their IQ, but it can give them superior communication skills and contribute to a broader perspective.
As a child who was raised around multiple languages and cultures, I can vouch for the pivotal role these play in development. Although was surrounded by people of varying ethnicities, many of whom spoke more than one language (including some in my own family), I didn’t become fluent in another language until I reached my mid-20s. But my parents always encouraged familiarity with those other languages and cultures.
Because of this, I learned to see the world through different sets of eyes from a very early age. It was fascinating to me how a simple news report would elicit completely different responses from my mother (with a Portuguese background), my father (who is Filipino), and my (pretty diverse) American friends. These types of experiences helped me to realize that everyone’s perspective is different, and these perspectives are shaped by a myriad of factors.
To this day, I relate well to people from just about any background. When meeting people who come from an unfamiliar place, I naturally focus on what we share in common–but I’m always fascinated by the differences.
PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
Of course, my research is far more anecdotal than that of Ms. Kinzler and her associates. And although I’ve never taken an IQ test, I’m sure it’s nothing to brag about.
But if you want to inspire natural curiosity and a love of learning in your children, remember this: You don’t need to be bilingual.
Just encourage them to be.
Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.
A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.