Some parents wonder if a multilingual environment, like in expat communities, is bad for their children’s language development. But recent studies lead to one conclusion: multilingualism makes the brain stronger. By Chris Mueller. Photo by Fred Wissink.

We all know the obvious benefits of being able to speak multiple languages, especially for expats who live in such cosmopolitan environments. But how are expat children affected by this immersion in another language? What if a child’s parents speak different languages? Will the child develop in the same way as his peers?

These are questions that often plague expat parents, but fortunately the answers are proving to be all positive.

Much has changed about the thinking of bilingualism and multilingualism. For a long time, many psychologists believed children who learned multiple languages at a young age became easily confused and were ultimately hindered by them. However, studies conducted over the past decade have proven this to be completely unfounded.

“For a long time people believed bilingualism is too hard for children, that it will hold them back,” Ellen Bialystok, a leading bilingual researcher at York University in Toronto, told me in a phone interview. “Now we know that is simply not true.”

Bialystok’s research has largely focused on something called the “executive control system”, which is a part of the brain that decides what is the most appropriate reaction to a certain situation. “We’re always bombarded by choices and too much stimuli,” she says. “The ECS directs attention to what’s necessary.”

Children who speak multiple languages are constantly exercising their executive control system, which leads to a stronger, more effective brain.

“For people who really are bilingual, both of those languages are always active and available,” Bialystok says. “That means every time you open your mouth to say something, you’ve got competition between the two language systems. So what the brain does is call on this system. If you’re bilingual you use it all time and it gets better.”

Of course, there are simple social and personal benefits in learning other languages, such as making for a more well-rounded person. But Bialystok’s research has revealed there are some not-so-obvious advantages as well.

Bilingual children, for example, are much better at multitasking. Because their brains are constantly having to choose which language to use, their executive control system becomes stronger, leading to a better decision-making process. Her research also suggests that the benefits are life long. According to her studies, bilingual children show signs of Alzheimer’s disease five or six years later than those who only speak one language.

Although there are plenty of benefits for having your child learn multiple languages, it isn’t always easy.

“Being bilingual can mean children are a little slower to talk and struggle at school at some points as their academic language develops,” says Bridie Gallagher, a clinical child psychologist and director of Indigo International in Phnom Penh.

At first, young bilingual or multilingual children often have difficulty organising the different languages, and it is common for them to confuse syntax, mixing up words or grammar from one language with another. But this problem disappears quickly, and after a few years the children learn how to separate the different languages.

Some studies also indicate that because monolingual children have only one language to focus on, their range of vocabulary early on is better than their multilingual counterparts.

In a 2009 study, Bialystok found this to be largely true. This shortcoming, however, is mainly limited to vocabulary related to home life, where the second language (which in the case of this study was English) isn’t spoken as frequently as in an English-only home. Bialystok says this is nothing to worry about, and as a child’s executive control becomes stronger, it will sort itself out.

“I really want parents to understand that they’re not harming their children,” she says. “Speaking multiple languages is enriching and doing good things for their brains.”

With all of this evidence highlighting the benefits of multilingualism, it seems obvious that parents should go out and sign their children up for a new language class.

After all, that’s what many expat families are already doing, especially in Asia where 58 percent of expat kids were found to be learning a new language, compared to 44 percent globally, according to the results of the HSBC Expat Explorer survey released in November. The survey also indicates that languages most often thought of as the most difficult for non-native speakers to learn, Chinese and Thai for example, are actually the most-adopted languages by expat children. In Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong, 75 percent, 72 percent and 52 percent of expat children, respectively, adopted the local languages. There was no data available for Vietnam.

But learning a language is very different than actually practicing it. In order to profit from the skill, children need to use it constantly, Bialystok says, adding, “Using it more, even imperfectly, leads to more benefits.”