For the first time, scientists have visual evidence demonstrating differences between monolingual and bilingual brains. Brains scans of 13 children between the ages of eight and nine taken while they solved simple math problems showed bilingual brains were significantly less active than monolingual brains while executing reasoning tasks. This implies that the addition of a language trains the brain to solve cognitive tasks more easily.
The study looked at bilinguals, children who speak two native languages at home and “school bilinguals,” monolinguals who are taught in two languages. Both groups showed a big advantage over monolinguals, with the true bilinguals performing the best overall.
Piet Van de Craen, a neurolinguist at VUB who lead the study, says the brains scans indicate that bilinguals and school bilinguals use less energy to complete cognitive tasks. In the same way an experienced driver no longer has to “think” about how to drive a car, bilinguals can automatise new tasks, to the point where they must make little conscious mental effort. Thus, says Dr Van de Craen, bilingual education helps to “build a better brain.”
For 15 years, Dr Van de Craen has investigated the effects of bilingual education – specifically a method called Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) – on school-aged children. CLIL is a language teaching technique that integrates a second “target language” into its curriculum, so subjects like history, math or physics might be taught in the target language. The ratio of course time spent in a child’s native versus target language depends on the age of the child, with target language time increasing with the age of the student.
CLIL has been endorsed by the European Union, which incorporates it into its 1995 initiative calling for every European citizen to have mastered three languages when he or she leaves secondary school.
His research has put Dr Van de Craen in the middle of an ongoing debate over bilingual education in Dutch-speaking primary and secondary schools. While in 1998, Wallonia began introducing CLIL widely and now has over 200 bilingual schools, Flanders has very few similar programs.
Further, despite being regularly rated among the best school systems in the world, Dr Van de Craen expresses concern that, when it comes to language education, Flanders lags behind other regions. Laws forbid children in both Wallonia and Flanders to study foreign languages before the fifth year, around age 10, while studies indicate that language learning yields best results when started before age 10.
“This is very strange,” says Dr Van de Craen. “If you want to learn the piano, you start early; if you want to become a grand master at chess, don’t wait until you’re 13 … and the same with language. So these laws actually run counter to what one would expect from a society.”
If you ask Dr Van de Craen what negative results might come from multilingual education, he responds emphatically. “I don’t have any cons at all. It’s like you asking what would be negative about me teaching my boy the piano. Well, maybe he’ll spend less time training to be an athlete, but that is just your decision to make.”
One concern regarding attempts to integrate second languages into schools is the fear that a child’s native language will be less developed. Dr Van de Craen refutes this, saying that a child fluent in Dutch who begins an education taught 20% in French will not develop only 80% of his Dutch. “It is 100% plus 20%,” he says. “It has nothing to do with losing something; you gain something.”
This “additive bilingualism” is tied to evidence that multilingualism trains children to learn how to learn, enhancing a child’s competency across many subjects.
Griet Vercruysse, a Dutch and English teacher at the Sancta Maria Institute in Aarschot, likes the idea of introducing CLIL into Flemish schools. “I do believe there are very strong learning advantages for these students,” she says. However, Vercruysse points out a possible negative aspect of CLIL for teachers. “I teach languages, so I am used to standing in front of a class speaking a foreign language, but perhaps a teacher in biology or history would have some reservations about suddenly speaking French.” She admits that this could negatively impact the teacher’s ability to communicate their material.
The EU’s assessment of the effectiveness of CLIL is generally very positive. The European Commission states that the success of CLIL has continually increased over the 10 years since it was introduced into European schools.
After years of research, these brain scans provide VUB’s teamwith their strongest evidence to date advocating the positive effects of bilingual education. In light of these new discoveries, now might be the time for Flemish schools to follow Dr Van de Craen’s cry that “schools should not hesitate”.
The new Flemish minister of education, Pascal Smet, has been publicly supportive of multilingual education and has indicated that the positive findings of studies like this help persuade him that widespread bilingual education might be a positive step for Flanders.