Bilingualism and the better brain

Published November 1, 2012

It was 1965, and educators in the English-speaking Montreal suburb of St. Lambert embarked on a bold new experiment. It was called French immersion and it would take young anglophone pupils and instruct them in all subjects, except English, in the French language. The goal was near native fluency in Canada’s other official language.

Since then, French immersion, or French as a second language (FSL), has spread to school boards in provinces and territories from coast to coast to coast. Hundreds of thousands of children have gone through the immersion stream-starting in junior kindergarten or at later points along the educational path.

Today, Canada’s world-renowned experiment is considered a success and is viewed as a how-to example by other countries. “It’s often used as a model for language revival or maintenance programs such as Welsh,” says Dr. Sharon Lapkin, a retired professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto.

And despite early criticism-it was expensive, served too few, would hamper children’s English development and siphon off funds needed for the English-language stream-FSL continues to turn out young people who score very well on international and Canadian civil service tests in written and oral French. What’s more, bilingual Canadians had higher rates of employment and commanded higher salaries than monolingual French or English speakers, according to the Canada Census of 2006.

Apart from French-language materials, immersion does not greatly increase education costs, says Lapkin. And far from impeding English learning, making French the medium of instruction is additive. “It does not detract from development in your mother tongue or in math or science. It adds another component.”

That component may well be contributing to better brains. Mounting neurological evidence from many countries suggests that the two-language brain may well be superior to the monolingual one. Bilingualism appears to confer more fundamental benefits than the ability to converse with a wider range of people and land jobs that require proficiency in two languages. Increasingly, research shows that it can improve crucial cognitive skills not related to language and help stave off dementia in old age.

That’s because routinely operating in two different tongues strengthens the brain’s executive-control system. “Lifelong experience in managing attention to two languages reorganizes specific brain networks and typically sustains better cognitive performance throughout the lifespan,” says Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto.

The executive-control system is late to mature, early to decline and located in the prefrontal cortex at the very forefront of the brain. “This system is crucial for paying attention, focusing on what’s important, multi-tasking and ignoring distractions,” says Bialystok. Since both languages are always active in bilinguals, there is no automatic switch-off when they speak one or the other. That gives their executive-control systems massive workouts because they have to filter out one language and keep it from intruding.

Even seven-month-old infants exposed to two linguistic systems in the home show advantages in the speed at which they can switch visual focus.

This new view of bilingualism is replacing the older view among educators and psychologists that considered a second language to be an interference that hindered academic and intellectual development and even promoted lower IQs.
That potential for interference is what puts the prefrontal cortex through its paces, and bilinguals-whether children, adults or seniors-seem faster at solving certain kinds of mental problems.

Testing by educators bears out this intellectual advantage. Since the beginning of immersion in 1965, a series of large studies has examined the results of standardized testing in school boards across Canada. Granted, there is often a reported lag in English skills when children are tested in Grade 3 before the introduction of English in Grade 4. “But the lag is temporary and by Grade 6, the kids are flying and outperforming mainstream kids,” says Lapkin, confirming that learning in another language improves intellectual capacity overall.

As Canada’s demographics become more complex in the 21st century, bilingual can easily become trilingual or more. “French immersion programs used to cater mainly to anglophone children. Now the classroom is much more diverse linguistically,” says Lapkin. “But the principles of immersion are the same.”

The challenge is greater, however. Instead of, say, an anglophone parent with high school French helping a child rewrite a French story in English at home, today’s immersion student may have an Urdu-speaking parent with limited English and no French trying to help translate the story to the mother tongue.

In 2012, despite support from a majority of Canadians, its documented success in producing people equipped to function in French, and mounting scientific evidence of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, the immersion/FSL option has some distance to go before access can be considered equitable. According to the Ottawa-based lobby group Canadian Parents for French, there are discrepancies among school districts in the number and types of programs offered. Some jurisdictions impose enrolment caps or levy program and transportation fees.

“This all depends on how the provinces and boards decide to spend the extra money they get from Heritage Canada under the Official Languages in Education Program to subsidize French immersion,” says Dr. Matthew Hayday, a professor of Canadian history at Ontario’s Guelph University.

But with the recent election in Quebec of the pro-separatist Parti Quebecois government of Pauline Marois, there’s another good reason to promote French immersion: national unity. “Fluency in our two official languages is incredibly important in the Canadian context in terms of creating a cohort of people able to serve as a bridge between our two language majorities,” says Hayday. “It’s a way of creating people who can communicate between francophone majorities and minorities across Canada and the rest of English-speaking North America.”


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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