At Rangsit University’s International Bilingual School in Thailand’s northern city, Chiang Mai, much attention is given to second language learning. However, what many parents may not realise is that their child is acquiring more than just another language. Research has shown there to be other benefits which are not directly related to language acquisition.
These extra benefits relate to advanced skills in learning, becoming better at managing everyday tasks and responsibilities, acquiring an enhanced memory capability, and the ability to understand more deeply the feelings of others, also known as empathy, to name four.
Learning skills relate to brain functioning. A number of neurological studies have shown that the brains of children who have acquired a second language (including those who are learning a second language) show actual growth in size over other children. These studies show increased size of grey matter (brain) density of the left brain of bilinguals. It is this part of the brain which is responsible for processing information and controlling aspects of sensory perception, memory and speech. It seems that the brain can grow when needed!
Bilinguals score higher on tests which involve creative thinking or problem solving. The ability to translate abstract concepts from one language to another also develops the skill to look at problems in more than one way.
Of course, it follows that vocabulary size is doubled for many second language learners. They acquire vocabulary in the same amount in each of their languages – their first and their second. The vocabulary of monolinguals is confined to their one and only language.
Because bilinguals need to match their language to the language of others for successful communication their social intelligence levels are higher. Bilinguals become more socially aware. They learn that there are more ways than one to view reality. They are more able to ‘navigate and negotiate complex social relationships and environments’.
Most importantly, because bilinguals acquire a greater capacity to sense the emotional state of other people, they understand the importance of congeniality among family relationships, for example, and greater advocates of harmony at both community and societal levels.