Bilingual Brain Advantage

During the decade politicians were banning bilingual education, I was in graduate school studying linguistics, including language acquisition–even bilingual language acquisition–and wishing we could all have bilingual (or trilingual) education. Children raised by parents with different native languages had the easiest time of it, especially those who conversed with each parent almost exclusively in their own languages. Next best would be learning any language while the language acquisition system was still open, as when children learn one language at school while speaking another at home.

And then there’s our system, where we not only discourage such home native language learning, we native English speakers postpone intense second language study until our brains have already pruned out the acquisition system that supports full fluency and native pronunciation. We’ve been robbed.

Fluently multilingual speakers have obvious career, travel, cultural, and social advantages. Many of you paid a social price as you developed these skills, along with the intellectual effort involved, but you end up with wider opportunities and, it stands to reason, amazing brains.

Now there are studies suggesting that you bilingual speakers might even delay the onset of Alzheimer disease. That’s how good a brain workout you’re getting, no matter which language you’re using. Psychologist Ellen Bialystok said in an NPR interview, “Even if you are in a context that is utterly monolingual, where you think there is absolutely no reason to think about Chinese or Spanish or French, it is part of the activated network that’s going on in your brain.”1

The study, published in Neurology, included 211 Alzheimer patients, approximately half bilingual, and it concluded “that the bilingual patients had been diagnosed 4.3 years later and had reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than the monolingual patients. The groups were equivalent on measures of cognitive and occupational level, there was no apparent effect of immigration status, and the monolingual patients had received more formal education. There were no gender differences.” It confirmed findings of a previous study. 2

NPR’s Gretchen Cuda-Kroen reports that 20% of American homes speak another language at home, while around the world, there could be as many as two-thirds of children being raised bilingual.3

The economic advantage of a multilingual population hasn’t inspired our educational policy. Maybe it’s because we’re lacking that brain advantage in the first place.

  1. Ellen Bialystok, PhD, interview by Gretchen Cuda-Kroen. “Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power” NPR. April 4, 2011
  2. Fergus I.M. Craik, PhD, Ellen Bialystok, PhD, and Morris Freedman, MD. “”Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve.”.” Neurology. November 9, 2010. (accessed 04 04, 2011).
  3. Gretchen Cuda-Kroen. “Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power” NPR. April 4, 2011

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Education Knows No Boundaries

For the first five years of my formal education, Louisiana was the setting. Halfway through second grade, I was assigned to a new school, courtesy of the United States Supreme Court. Desegregation was such a formative adventure, it’s the premise of my first novel.

Forty years later, we are more segregated than ever, by income, education, race, you name it. Did the courage and sacrifices of my generation count for nothing?

In Ohio, a mom was convicted of a felony for enrolling her children in a better school under her father’s address. Someone commented that she wasn’t paying taxes in that school district. Doesn’t her father pay taxes?

If we fail to educate the children in the next zip code, will they kindly keep their poverty and crime rates to themselves as well? If we fail to teach them critical thinking skills, will they kindly refrain from voting and influencing popular media? is collecting letters for the governor of Ohio. Here’s mine:

Dear Governor John Kasich,

In Arizona, we can apply for a boundary exception to any school that has space for another child. We have charter schools. We have nonprofits raising funds for private school tuition. We definitely have our problems, but parents have choices.

My college-age son is the product of a wonderful public school system, but thanks to No Child Left Behind, the AZ legislators’ response to that, the flood of illegal immigration, and the legislators’ response to that (ending bilingual education), my younger son was robbed. His early school days were devoted to filling out meaningless worksheets to practice for the AIMS test, waiting for the English Language Learners to catch up, and fighting off gangs on the playground.

It took four schools in four years, but now he’s in his third year at an incredible school focused on theme-based instruction, attention to brain-based learning, and preparation for learning and life, not passing a standardized test.

This Williams-Bolar case demonstrates that Ohio is also suffering some of the same profound challenges. I invite you to consider more than these symptoms, and look to the underlying causes. Parents are tremendously discontent in every state. Please understand that our dreams for our children (our own children and all those who impact our society) should be one of the highest priorities of government.

Best Wishes,
Gwyn Nichols

I wish I had added that it broke my heart to pull my younger child out of our public school system. I sent my children to school to be educated, and also–as I did in my own childhood–to contribute to the education of others. But there came a point when we had to adjust our own oxygen masks first. Our local schools are still filled with wonderful teachers. The trouble is that they aren’t allowed to use what they learned in college about learning, they have been hampered by legislative stupidity, and now they are losing their jobs, their pay, and their support. I salute them, I pray for them, and I pray for the day when we take the most selfish action of all: to educate ALL the children.

Write and send your own letter to Governor Kaisch here.