Bilingualism, of course, can be a leg up for college admission and a résumé burnisher. But a growing body of research now offers a further rationale: the regular, high-level use of more than one language may actually improve early brain development.
According to several different studies, command of two or more languages bolsters the ability to focus in the face of distraction, decide between competing alternatives, and disregard irrelevant information. These essential skills are grouped together, known in brain terms as “executive function.” The research suggests they develop ahead of time in bilingual children, and are already evident in kids as young as 3 or 4.
While no one has yet identified the exact mechanism by which bilingualism boosts brain development, the advantage likely stems from the bilingual’s need to continually select the right language for a given situation. According to Ellen Bialystok, a professor at York University in Toronto and a leading researcher in the field, this constant selecting process is strenuous exercise for the brain and involves processes beyond those required for monolingual speech, resulting in an extra stash of mental acuity, or, in Bialy-stok’s terms, a “cognitive reserve.”
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