06 November, 2012

Cognitive skills, development and bilingualism

We have had a meeting with our boy´s teacher (kindergarten) to have an in-depth chat about the first months in school. There are 2 main messages that she wanted to share with us:
-       Things we should work on with him:
§  Motor skills: He is slightly behind the average in terms of motor skills, meaning he bumps into things, trips over and falls down more than other same aged kids. There´s nothing to worry about because not all the children develop all their skills at the very same time. That means he is a little bit clumsier than the average, so it´s just a matter of time that he improves these skills, we only have to make sure that he continues to have activities that imply movement, and that´s easy as he doesn´t stand still… ever!
§  Please: He demands things in a very dictatorial style. We need to work on this together with Grandpas. I´m sure though his baby sister will help on this as soon as she arrives. I´m afraid that one way or the other he will perceive that he has to share the center of the universe with another little person.
-       Cognitive skills: He is apparently way beyond the rest of the class in terms of cognitive skills. She gave us some examples that prove that his skills on this area are equivalent to a much older boy. For example, they use a chart with symbols of the different routines that they follow each day until someone comes to pick them up at 5:00pm, so they can understand what´s coming next and have a reference, and some security about what´s going to happen. The teacher says it normally takes the kids half of the school year or the entire course to have this chart down pat. She says he could tell the rest of the class and the teacher what was coming next after only 2 weeks, in 2 languages, so they say they are really impressed. They are working on colors, one each month, so they understand and integrate which things are (let´s say) red in their environment. I certainly didn´t know that they were going to cover this kind of things at his age.  We have by no means trained him on these short of routines, all of the contrary; he has shown a very vivid interest in colors, numbers, and letters since he was as young as 15-16 months old. Now he is 2,5 years old he can easily count up to 20, knows all the colors ,including some that are considered (apparently) tricky, like purple or grey. He also differentiates “dark blue” from “light blue” and all these things he does it in 2 languages.

Actually we have never sat down and thought about it because we didn´t have many references other than cousins, and obviously you don´t conduct an exam every time they get together to compare (so sick!). I don´t believe he is a typical profile of highly gifted individual (Mensa style). Apart from the fact that this is absolutely nothing that we would pursue, I guess that if this were the case he would be doing things like playing the violin and maybe reading faster than us. We just want him to grow happy and healthy, but the fact is that among other 20 same aged little individuals, he´s been reported to be some short of “outlier” in terms of cognitive development. I have also read that sometimes some kids develop earlier in a short period of time but then they slow down the pace and they get balanced within normal parameters according to their age.

I don´t support the idea that bringing up your kids in more than one language will make them automatically smarter than others, as sometimes it might even add more complexity to their lives. I just think it is a way to make them more adaptable and have more opportunities in life, but what if there is a real and direct link between one thing and the other? If this were the case, would that make kids from Belgium, Switzerland or many parts of India automatically smarter than others?
I consider this point really interesting, so this question goes to all of you bringing up your offspring in more than one language:

Have your kids been objectively reported to have any short of advantage compared to same-aged monolingual kids? At what age?
Do you think these differences can be attributed to being raised in more than one language or they only respond to nature?


  1. It's always tough to measure these things, as there are so many other factors that it's hard to isolate the language factor! But I've read, and it makes sense, that in tests bilinguals are better at isolating important information (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/science/31conversation.html). I can't say I've actually noticed this in my own children yet though!

  2. Sounds like your son is thriving at school and in both languages!

    Griffin has been formally evaluated a few times and performs at an advanced level for his age in almost all areas (I don't mean to brag, but since you asked....). I'd say this is more due to his having two parents who have been actively involved in his learning since his birth than to his growing up with two languages.

    On the other hand, I really do feel that operating in two languages every day keeps more synapses firing in his brain and increases his critical thinking ability. I have also read that people skilled in languages also tend to excel in music and mathematics, because these three areas have a lot of commonalities in terms of how the brain processes them. Makes sense to me!