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Why do multilingual children do better in school? AboutKidsHealth.ca investigates

03-23-2011 05:50 PM CET | Health & Medicine

Press release from: AboutKidsHealth.ca

AboutKidsHealth.ca - leading online Canadian provider of children's health information

AboutKidsHealth.ca - leading online Canadian provider of children's health information

Leading online provider of children’s health information in Canada, AboutKidsHealth.ca, investigates the way in which children are able to learn languages so easily, and why this makes them perform more highly in school.

Canadian-born, Christopher Woon was just a baby when he was first exposed to the mother tongue from his parents. While growing up in the English-speaking community of Port Hope, Ontario, he spoke exclusively in Korean in the house. Up until he was about 6, he would spend his summers visiting family in South Korea, and a few hours a day at a Hagwon, a private Korean summer school.

Now, 15, Christopher is completely fluent in both languages. "I've watched all 140 episodes of Daejyoung," he says of the Korean historic drama series, "and they don't contain subtitles," he grins while sitting across a small Korean CD and DVD store. Being so well versed in Korean and English, occasionally, he speaks a bit of 'Konglish' - a mixture of Korean and English. "Sometimes I'll ask my sister to pass me the mool (water)."

Like Christopher, many kids who grow up bilingual are better at acquiring a second language compared to those who learned it when they are older. "If there is anything humans are extremely robust for, its language," says Dr. Tracy Solomon, Developmental Psychologist at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). "No other non-human primate can produce a fluent and generative language as we can."

Our built-in linguistic capacity however, is most optimal when we're young.

Some parents may worry that exposing more than one language to a child may inundate and confuse them. But Dr. Solomon says there's no need to worry. Children have a remarkable ability to 'code-switch': they can swap between languages and the way they are used depending on the situation. The part of the brain that might help bilinguals flip between each linguistic neural pathway is the left-inferior frontal cortex (LIFC), which is involved in language processing.

By flipping between separate linguistic caches, bilinguals are priming their cognitive control skills all the time. "If you can use English in school and you go home and speak your mother tongue at home, that simple shift [of language] is good for the brain," says Peter Chaban, an education expert and AboutKidsHealth.ca columnist. For example, Christopher can only say mool by holding back the equivalent English word water at the same time, which takes a lot of focus and control. These enhanced skills in attentiveness are part of the reason why children who are multilingual do better in school.

Some parents may be apprehensive of the extra workload or whether the new language might distract a child from learning other subjects such as math and science. But many experts say that the second language doesn't seem to hinder kids. Studies show that students struggling in math and science in French immersion experience the same challenges when placed in an English stream. "We're pattern detectors. We naturally glom on to patterns and quickly get used to the 'rules' of the language," says Dr. Solomon, adding that our strong primal tendency to acquire new language makes it hard to imagine it would be an impediment to learning other subjects.

Nira Datta
Medical Writer/Editor
AboutKidsHealth

Please visit http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/En/News/NewsAndFeatures/Pages/Our-linguistic-gift.aspx to read the original article, or AboutKidsHealth.ca for additional children's health resources.

AboutKidsHealth.ca
AboutKidsHealth.ca is the leading Canadian online source for trusted child health information, and has a scope and scale that is unique in the world. Developed by SickKids Learning Institute in collaboration with over 300 paediatric health specialists, the site provides parents, children, and community health care providers with evidence-based information about everyday health and complex medical conditions, from language development to raising bilingual children to spina bifida. AboutKidsHealth.ca adheres to rigorous quality standards for the creation and review of health information.

Visit www.aboutkidshealth.ca to find out more.

Sue Mackay, Communications
mailto:susan.mackay@sickkids.ca
The Hospital for Sick Children
555 University Avenue
Toronto, OntarioM5G 1X8
Canada
Tel: 416-813-5165

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