134031979By Samara Freemark and Stephen Smith, American RadioWorks

For decades, psychologists cautioned against raising children bilingual. They warned parents and teachers that learning a second language as a child was bad for brain development. But recent studies have found exactly the opposite. Researchers now believe that when people learn another language, they develop cognitive advantages that improve their attention, self-control and ability to deal with conflicting information.

Today the benefits of bilingualism are being put to the test in schools all across Utah.

Arrowhead Elementary is just one of the more than 100 public schools in the state that have launched language immersion programs in the past five years. At Arrowhead, that language is Mandarin. Other schools across Utah have created programs in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German.

Supporters of immersion education argue that learning a second language is valuable preparation to participate in the global economy. But parents are most excited about what language learning could do for their children’s brains.


The first-graders of Arrowhead Elementary in Santa Clara, Utah, are giggling. Their math teacher, Jing Sun, has just made a little subtraction joke. She drew red circles on a whiteboard, erased one, and asked, “Where did he run away to?” The kids think it’s hilarious.

It’s a joke that could be made in any first-grade math class across the United States — except that here, in southern Utah, in front of a classroom full of blond children in braids and crew cuts, Sun is speaking Mandarin Chinese. That’s the only language she speaks in the classroom: English is, emphatically, not allowed here. And the students in this class, who have been in Arrowhead’s Chinese program only about two months, seem to understand almost everything Sun is saying.

Students in a Chinese immersion program learn their numbers in Mandarin by counting pieces of cereal. (Stephen Smith)
Students in a Chinese immersion program learn their numbers in Mandarin by counting pieces of cereal. (Stephen Smith)

At Arrowhead Elementary, half of the kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders spend half of each day in classes taught entirely in Mandarin Chinese. This model of language education is known as dual immersion: The students learn civics and reading in English, and math and science in a second language.

Arrowhead implemented its immersion program three years ago, hiring native Mandarin-speaking teachers through a partnership between the Chinese government and the state of Utah. Principal Susan Harrah initially faced some resistance from parents and staff.

“Our faculty just weren’t ready for it,” Harrah said. “A lot of them weren’t dual immersion teachers, so a lot of them had — not bitter feelings, but they didn’t want to have any part of any type of a language program at all.”

Arrowhead kindergarten teacher Jackie Fonnesbeck did not support the change. “I was very worried about the math, because that’s where they’re learning the basics, and I felt like they needed to have a good, strong base in English before they learn it in Chinese.”

Three years into the program, Arrowhead’s immersion skeptics have become its greatest fans. Test scores for immersion students at the school are slightly higher than they are for non-immersion kids. There’s a waiting list to get into the program. And the school’s teachers — even the English-language ones — are now big supporters.

“It’s fun to see them learning and talking in Chinese,” Fonnesbeck said. “It’s amazing these children can do this, because I sure can’t. The younger they get started, the better off they’re going to be. You’re in awe when you see it.”

Teacher Ping Ji at Arrowhead Elementary. In Utah immersion schools, teachers speak no English to their students. (Stephen Smith)
Teacher Ping Ji at Arrowhead Elementary. In Utah immersion schools, teachers speak no English to their students. (Stephen Smith)


Brain researchers who study bilingualism believe that the act of juggling two languages strengthens the brain system that helps people pay attention. That strong capacity to focus might be what leads to better academic performance in some children who grow up bilingual or attend language immersion programs.

Canadian psychologist Ellen Bialystok, at York University in Toronto, studies how the brains of bilingual people work in comparison to people who speak just one language. She wires up the skulls of test subjects from both groups to an electroencephalograph (EEG), a device that records electrical activity produced by neurons in the brain. One of the experiments she performs is called the Eriksen flanker task, which measures a person’s attention and ability to screen out unwanted stimuli. Bilingual people generally perform better on the test than monolinguals.

In Bialystok’s cognitive performance lab, the test subject watches a computer monitor that flashes a set of five arrows arrayed in a line. Depending on where the center arrow is pointing, the subject clicks a computer mouse in her left or right hand. The arrows flanking the central target add cognitive noise to the pattern. The subject has to ignore those arrows and focus on the center one. The speed and accuracy of the test subject’s reactions are measured by the computer. The EEG detects how hard her brain had to work to sort out the target arrow from the flanking noise.

Bialystok believes bilinguals are better at tuning out the noise. Their brains may have a stronger “executive control” system because of the need to switch, mentally, between languages.

“What we now know based on massive research is that both languages are always active [in the brain] to some degree,” Bialystok said. So if French were her first language and English her second, “Why don’t half my sentences come out with French words by accident?” she asked.

That rarely happens in bilinguals, Bialystok said, because the executive control system — a network in the brain’s frontal lobe — is busy focusing the mind’s attention on English, screening out the French words. The network is a kind of traffic control system that helps organize and regulate thinking. When a bilingual person calls on the network to manage the traffic of dual languages, it gets stronger.

“Bilinguals are more efficient in resolving mental competition,” said psychology professor Judith Kroll, an expert on bilingualism and director of the Center for Language Science at Penn State. “They’re apparently able to keep languages separate while keeping them both available and active in their minds at the same time.”

Today, bilingualism is seen as having cognitive benefits, but that wasn’t always the case. When Bialystok was an undergraduate in the 1960s, psychologists saw bilingualism as a disadvantage.

“There was a profoundly pervasive belief that languages were hard for children,” Bialystok said. “And that if you made a child bilingual you risked, to quote a textbook of the 1950s, ‘mental retardation.’ ”

In our contemporary, multitasking society, notions have changed. A bilingual person with a strong executive control system may have an edge. “Everything that we do that requires focused, selective attention — ignoring salient distractors that are trying to compete for attention, shifting between two things that we are trying to do at the same time, manipulating information — that is all frontal lobe, executive function stuff,” Bialystok said.

In functional MRI scans of test subjects doing the flanker task, researchers can see that the part of the brain that is believed to house the executive control system uses less blood flow in bilinguals. It’s not working as hard.

Researchers have also discovered that bilingualism may provide some protection for the brains of aging people. Studies show that the onset of dementia occurs later in the brains of bilingual people. The executive control system, researchers say, is the last one to fully develop (think teenagers) and the first to decline, but strengthening it may slow that decline.

Bialystok and Kroll say one reason language can have such a profound effect on the brain is because of how deeply we are steeped in language. We use language constantly, to speak, to read and to think. Compare that to time spent in other cognitive activities such as practicing music or making mathematical calculations.

“Over the course of your life, you have vastly more experience using language than most of these other domains,” Kroll said.

Kroll and Bialystok caution not to get too far in front of the research by making assumptions about the benefits of bilingualism. Scientists are still working to determine exactly what mechanism makes bilingual brains gain greater executive control. And there’s no guarantee that growing up bilingual, or in a language immersion program, will prove beneficial for any given individual.


Immersion education is growing in the rest of the country. California and Minnesota have long been leaders in immersion, and Delaware recently implemented a new program modeled after Utah’s. According to the most recent numbers from the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), immersion education has been steadily increasing in the United States since the 1970s. In 2011, CAL counted almost 450 immersion programs across the country. Today, that number is almost certainly higher, as Utah in particular adds schools to its statewide program.

But language education in general is actually declining across the country, especially in the lower grades. Between 1997 and 2008, the percentage of elementary schools offering foreign language instruction dropped from 31 percent to 25 percent. And the numbers are even more striking when you consider only public schools, where the percentage of elementary institutions offering language education dropped from 24 percent to 15 percent over the same period.

Numbers like these make Gregg Roberts, Utah’s dual language coordinator, irate. “What are you thinking?” he says. “Why are you staying monolingual? Why do you think this will benefit your students in the 21st century? Why would you not be offering this benefit to your students?”


When it came time to register her boys, Tiger and Justin, for first grade, Stacy Steiner of Southern Utah had a choice: put them in Horizon Elementary School’s Chinese immersion program or enroll them in the school’s standard English program. Stacy was intrigued by immersion, but she was also nervous, particularly about Justin, who sometimes struggled in school.

“I was a little concerned about him not having the foundation they get in first grade,” Steiner said. “I thought that adding a language to that would be a challenge. So there was a lot of angst over that at the beginning.”

In the end, she chose immersion. On the first day of school Justin said he expected his instructor to teach Chinese “the normal way”: by saying something in Chinese and then telling the class what the words meant in English. But when they went into class, “She [couldn’t] talk any English — only Chinese!” he said. “And so I was like, ‘OK, how do we do this? This is going to be so hard.’”

Steiner said that she worried through the whole first month of classes about how her boys were doing, immersed in a language they had never heard before. That changed at the first parent-teacher conference.

Steiner has a recording she made of the meeting. On the screen, Justin sits with his teacher, reading from a sheet of Chinese characters. “Justin wasn’t reading English that fast last year,” Stacy marveled. “I was warned ahead of time that I would be surprised at how much they’d learned. But nothing really prepares you for that.”

Last year, Justin struggled in school. This year, he’s making A’s. She says the boys’ success learning Mandarin Chinese has changed the way she pictures their future.

“It has absolutely broadened my plans for my children,” she said. “I’m excited to see what they do with it.”

This article originally appeared on American RadioWorks and is part of an hourlong radio documentary called the Science of Smart. You can listen to the full documentary here and download the American RadioWorks podcast on ideas in education.

Could Bilingual Education Mold Kids’ Brains to Better Resist Distraction? 1 October,2014MindShift

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  • How odd that in the past bilingualism was seen as a negative!

    • OcelotC

      it’s often true that bilingual children are slower to start speaking (they catch up later), so maybe signs like that were why they thought it was a problem.

      • Cindy

        Not in our experience. 3 kids, raised in a one parent one language household and none have had delays in speaking. I think that’s a myth.

        • Juliette

          Agreed. I think this is one of the widest held myths about bilingualism. Let’s not forget the huge developmental spectrum of when kids start to speak, in the same way they all walk at different rates.

      • Excellent point. That may have a lot to do with it

      • pdxmom

        or they mix up the language at first when they are learning. everyone at some point when they are older is capable of understanding how not to, it’s just in the beginning. because when one’s children are learning ANY language they mess things up all the time (I’m sure we all have examples). so messing up with two languages isn’t surprising.

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  • jen jhu

    Education is always evolving and changing. It may be difficult for monolingual parents to understand the reasoning and importance of the changes that occur in education because they only have their education as a reference. Every parent wants what is best for their child and this is the beginning of their education journey. This could be why immersion schools may receive push back in the beginning. When adults look at kindergarten, first, and second graders we see our youngest learners who are also our most dependent learner. It is easy to forget what sponges they are at this age. It is extremely easy for learners at this age to pick up new concepts, like a language. It was stated in the article that students involved in an immersion program perform slightly higher than those that do not. With all the research out there showing the benefits for bilingual individuals have developed executive control that improves their ability to pay attention and have self-control and possibly delay the onset of dementia why is language education on the decline? WIth the United States struggling to make the top 20 in the global ranking in education maybe we need to look at what the United States is lacking in. Currently only around 20% of our population is bilingual, which is significantly less than our counterparts. Maybe offering more programs to allow learners to become bilingual would benefit their academic career. I would this data remain true for students who begin learning another language later in life like in middle school. With this kind of data coming to the surface will it create an increase in immersion schools or language programs. Finally, for children who are diagnosed at a young age with ADD or ADHD could an immersion program like this help children develop and improve their self-control?

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    • pdxmom

      wow that is kinda condescending. ‘those people’ don’t understand because ‘those people’ are not smart enough to understand? wow…wow.
      We moved to a city that has some bilingual schools when my kids were too old to go to them (once the kids are older they kinda require them to be fluent…it’s kinda stupid, honestly). I would have loved loved my kids to go to the international school when they were little, where we lived, but at $20k per year (or more) it wasn’t in the cards. I always wanted to raise my kids overseas for various reasons, but one of them being to learn a new language.

  • Emily

    It is so wonderful to read these findings! At VIF International Education, we offer Spanish and Mandarin immersion programs. Similarly to as stated in this article, we believe that language immersion programs have great potential to help strengthen children’s brain functions. Check out this infographic to learn more: http://www.vifprogram.com/pdf/splash-dual-language-immersion-bilingual-brain.pdf

    Emily Liebtag – Manager of Curriculum and Instructional Design at VIF
    VIF website: http://www.vifprogram.com
    Twitter: @VIFprogram or @VIFLearn
    Facebook: VIF International Education or VIF Learn

  • Raised Bilingual

    I grew up bilingual (french/english) and I still don’t understand why people caution against it. The only people who find bilingualism confusing are monolinguals. My sister and I mixed both languages all the time when we spoke (still do), not because we were confused, but because it was an option we had that other people didn’t have. After a certain point the language used to communicate doesn’t matter as much as the message itself. We’ve since then added creole, and spanish to the mix. You use whatever language you feel like. We didn’t even notice we were switching half the time because at the end of it all, the message had come across nice and clear.

    I’m currently teaching my kids French and Spanish. They have no problem. You speak it enough, you listen to it enough, you demonstrate it enough, and it all sinks in. The kids figure it out real fast. Plus you find good bilingual books and you read it to them. Check these out on Amazon: bit.ly/klecticmediacom

  • Alf Collett

    I have taught in an international school here in Bangkok for many years and have followed the debate for some time, as many of the students do not come to school with English as their first language. It’s essential that bilingual children continue to develop their home language when they are learning a new one. Those who do ALWAYS fair better with their new language.
    I’m currently taking a year off from being paid to set up an English language program with the Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao and Burmese speaking children in the slum kindergartens of Klong Toei, Bangkok. I have already seen improvements in the children’s learning but I suspect this is more to do with the teaching methods of the program rather than the addition of another language. But according to this article perhaps it’s having a bigger impact than I thought!
    Read my blog on the program here: mercycentrelanguageprogram.wordpress.com

  • Alvira Nicholas

    that’s rite…education is certainly one that you will help your character but with evolution of technology over progress of time you will have to develop newer methods to learn which could be harder for older generation people , this certainly would be useful for the child’s mind development and can provide better results…thanks for these tips

    • pdxmom

      people can learn at any age. the idea that we are ‘done’ at a certain point in time is antiquated and harmful.

  • LittleMouse

    Great post, thank you! I also don’t understand the hostility towards bilingual education. Not sure whether it may help kids to better resist distraction but it’s the best way to teach them second language. Of course some people will oppose it because you need to know what to precisely not to ruin child’s comprehension. I constantly address to online essay writers to make sure I’m doing everything right. To be completely honest it’s harder for me to teach my kid like that rather than for her to comprehend the material. Amy

  • Andy999

    A marvelous documentary on this topic is “Speaking in Tongues,” which just became available on Amazon.

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    • pdxmom

      and it makes it so much easier for them to learn more languages.

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    To be honest it’s a very good achievement to the state that have launched language immersion program according to fantastic research.
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  • John Lee

    Our son is now 23 months and he can easily differentiate between his mothers Russian and my English. He knows that certain people only speak English and others Russian. He had no delay in speaking and actually find his vocabulary and ability to sentence words lot better than other kids his age. While other kids may know few more words in English, he knows his vocabulary in both Russian and English which gives him a much larger memory bank than his peers at the moment. Whats more interesting is when other languages are spoken to him during our travels or my family (speak in Korean). You can see he pauses and tries to decipher the new language. He has now familiarized himself with Korean in the sense “oh that’s Korean, I heard it but not sure of the meaning”. I can not say this is the norm in bilingual kids, but we can definitely see his brain working when approached by different people language speakers and his abilities to differentiate and address. I have many friends in the US with kids that do not speak until 2 years of age while our child can speak and understand 2 languages already. Same as the French/English person in the previous comment, he can easily switch between both and address you properly at 23 months.

  • Paul Thompson

    Wonderful story!

    But if it shown on site like this it will be greater.More people should know about this!

  • Well, my daughter is bilingual.. we were TOLD it was better to teach her while young as long as we used “One parent, one language” so she didn’t mix them up (I’m American living in France with my French husband). I speak English with my daughter and she replies to me in English, she uses French with my husband.
    My mom kept saying it was too much, but my daughter is fine at 7 years old. She has been attending a bilingual school since she was 3 for one language she already knows (French) and another she didn’t (German). It too is an immersion school. They do science and math in German and reading and stuff in French and German. One day class is completely in German, the next day French. She seems to be doing ok and working towards being trilingual. I wouldn’t say that her attention span is any different from a kid her age though. She seems pretty normal except for her minor accent in both French and English.. but then again, I am not around many children and she is an only child. The only thing I notice about her is she is more calm than other children (that could just be temperament) and really quick to figure things out on her own.

  • richard

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  • s.p. v

    This is complete news to me. I was not aware that in the past there were objections against kids being bilingual, or learning another language as they were growing up. It seems so counter intuitive that kids would be discourage to learn a new language. I still don’t
    understand how conclusions were made that learning a dual language would cause harm to kids learning development. Our brain is like a muscle and the more we use it, the stronger it gets. I am so glad that there are research studies dispelling
    the notion that learning multiple language as a child can cause harm.

    I myself am bilingual and have always found it to be an advantage. I remember learning in high school (nearly twenty years ago) that we should always include in our resume that we speak other languages because it makes you more marketable. It’s great news to hear that some elementary schools are moving towards dual immersion and that parents and teacher are seeing the advantages that it offers their kids. I wish my kids had this importunity when they were in elementary school.


  • Kenneth Cade

    I think bilingual is not that bad thing for kids, cuz it’s make them grow faster (not physically but mentally).

    And if we talking about speed, we need to ake control of our time,and we should waste it wisely.

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