Bilingual children have an easier time learning additional languages later in life than those who speak only one language, researchers report.
For a new, small study, researchers included 13 college students who learned English and Mandarin at a young age, and 16 college students who spoke only English.
The bilingual students were better able to learn a new language over the course of a week than the monolingual students, the investigators found. Brain scans revealed significant differences between the two groups in patterns of certain types of brain waves.
“The difference is readily seen in language learners’ brain patterns,” said senior researcher Michael Ullman. He is a professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
“When learning a new language, bilinguals rely more than monolinguals on the brain processes that people naturally use for their native language,” Ullman explained in a university news release.
And, lead study author Sarah Grey noted, “We also find that bilinguals appear to learn the new language more quickly than monolinguals.” Grey is an assistant professor of Spanish and linguistics, and director of the
language program at Fordham University in New York City.
“There has been a lot of debate about the value of early bilingual language education,” Grey said in the news release. “Now, with this small study, we have novel brain-based data that points towards a distinct language-learning benefit for people who grow up bilingual.”
The researchers studied Mandarin-English speakers because both languages differ structurally from the new language used in the study. The language was an artificial version of a Romance language, Brocanto2, that the students learned to both speak and understand. Use of an artificial language allowed the researchers to control the students’ exposure to it, the study authors noted.
The study was published Oct. 2 in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on the bilingual effects in the brain.