In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Stefka Marinova-Todd, associate professor at the School of Audiology and Speech Sciences at the University of British Columbia. She shares insights from her research into bilingualism and why learning multiple languages is good for you–both for your brain and for your soul.

Today’s Guest:

Dr. Stefka Marinova-Todd is a developmental psycholinguist and her main research interests are bilingual language development and second language acquisition.  She is originally from Bulgaria, and on a good day, she considers herself to be a balanced bilingual in English and Bulgarian.  She has also learned Russian, German, French (and a bit of Latin) to various degrees of proficiency.  After completing her undergraduate degree in Developmental Psychology at York University in Canada, and her doctoral degree in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the U.S., She is now an Associate Professor at the School of Audiology and Speech Sciences at The University of British Columbia.

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Transcription for Episode 9:
Amy

Welcome to Growing Up Brainy. Your portal into what’s happening inside your baby’s brain. We interview the experts, demystify the science and help you nurture your child towards a brighter future. 

Hi there. I’m your host, Amy Husted, startup addict boy, mom of two and chief commercial officer here at Small Talk. In today’s episode, I have the pleasure of talking with Dr. Stefka Marinova-Todd, associate professor at the School of Audiology and Speech Sciences at the University of British Columbia. Stefka, before we get started, I would love if you shared a little bit more about your background and focus of study.

 

Stefka

Well, first of all, thank you for having me. It’s a great pleasure. I always appreciate the opportunity to talk to parents directly about the research that we do. So it’s really wonderful to be here. Originally, I’m from Bulgaria, and when I was growing up there, I believed that it was a purely monolingual country. And only recently I discovered that actually, that was not true. But having grown up speaking only one language, Bulgarian, which is fairly obscure, nobody outside of the country speaks it. I had great motivation to learn more languages so that I can travel. I love traveling. I came to Toronto, Canada, at the age of 21 and got two degrees in developmental psychology there at York University. And then I moved to Boston, where I studied for my doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And since graduation, I’ve been working as a professor here at UBC in Vancouver, Canada. I’m a multilingual mother of two who collects languages like prized possessions and a writer.

 

Amy

I love that.

 

Stefka

And a writer of both fiction and nonfiction.

 

Amy

Awesome. That is something I did not know about you. So thank you for sharing that fun fact. Well, in today’s episode, we’re talking about bilingualism. Some of you may remember that we started this conversation in episode three with Dr. Lynn Nichols, where we discussed how babies learn language and a bit about bilingualism. But I would love to move into today’s portion of the conversation by putting a bit of a definition around this term. So, Stefka, what does it actually mean to be bilingual? Is there a proficiency requirement? What does that look like?

 

Stefka

Literally, the term comes from Latin, which “bi” means two in English and lingua, which means tongue or basically two tongues or two languages. Theoretically, anyone who can speak two languages would be considered bilingual regardless of his or her proficiency. On a practical level however, and especially when we conduct research with bilingual people, proficiency becomes important and also in daily functioning. Right. When you need to be able to communicate with other people in one or more languages. So the degree of proficiency in each language does not need to be equivalent or very high. But it has to be enough so that the person can communicate successfully in each language, ability to function effectively, so get their needs met, being able to express their thoughts and desires, and they understand the thoughts and desires of others.

 

Amy

So simply being able to speak two languages with some level of proficiency and to be able to communicate can make somebody bilingual. But I also heard the term being a native speaker of a language, can you be a native speaker of two languages? What does that require? You have to grow up in a home that has both of those. What makes it maybe more authentic?

 

Stefka

Absolutely. Yes. There’s actually a term, native bilingual, which refers to those individuals who typically are born in families where already two languages are spoken on a daily basis to a high degree of proficiency. So let’s say a family where both parents usually speak the two languages. So in that case, if a baby is born in such a family, he would be exposed to, let’s say, Spanish and English from day one. And if the parents continue to speak both languages to the child as the child grows up, he will become native bilingual of the two languages, expecting that he’ll have equivalent proficiency in both languages. And in this context, we no longer can say this one is the L one, the first language, and this is the L two or the second language, because the child is developing both languages simultaneously, and in this case would anticipate expect that that child’s ability in each language will be equivalent to that of a native speaker of that language.

 

Amy

Fascinating. Thank you for explaining that. So why do you study this? What makes you interested in bilingualism? What got you started on this topic?

 

Stefka

Why study this? Well, the majority of the human population on Earth is at least bilingual, and therefore, by studying bilinguals, we learn more. We’re able to address the needs or study of a large number of human beings. And ultimately, that’s the goal of us as researchers. Also, on a personal level, I would describe myself as pretty decent bilingual and in my native language, Bulgarian and English. I also have learned three other languages, but I’m not speaking them nearly as well. So I will describe myself as a multilingual. But as a bilingual, I’m interested in learning what others like me could or could not do. What makes us different from monolinguals, et cetera. On a daily basis, we usually only care whether someone is bilingual if we want to make sure that we want to talk to them. Right. So, for example, if I’m in Mexico, I don’t speak Spanish, and I’d like to buy a loaf of bread and it happens to be behind the counter. I need to, I sure hope the salesperson is bilingual in English and Spanish so that he can give me the bread. Otherwise, I might go hungry. But basically, we want to know more languages, which would allow us to communicate with more people. They are like keys that open more doors. But from a scientific point of view, we also want to know how bilinguals are similar or different to monolinguals, what they can do better or possibly worse, how their brains are structured, how they learn not only one language, but generally how they do in school, and ultimately, do they function any differently in real life circumstances than monolinguals?

 

Amy

So while I’ve been learning here at smallTalk, being part of the team and digging into bilingualism and what that all means, I’ve become aware that there are some brain benefits to bilingualism. What can you tell us from what we already know from a research perspective and a little bit about what’s being studied now, when it comes to the effects of bilingualism on the brain?

 

Stefka

There are a myriad of benefits from being bilingual, and I would not describe them necessarily as brain benefits. I think what you’re referring to, Amy, is what we call cognitive benefits to being bilingual. And as cognitive capacities are controlled by the brain, of course, it makes sense to make that connection. But I just want to make it very clear that bilingual children do experience some cognitive benefits as a result of being bilingual. But bilingualism per se does not make them smarter. And I’ll talk about that a little more. From research. We know that the brains of bilinguals are structured somewhat differently from the brains of those of Monolinguals, and as a result of the exposure to another language. And in some cases, the structural differences relate to differences in behavior. For example, we know that young bilingual children, usually those between the age of four and seven, tend to have a greater awareness of language, which we call metalinguistic awareness, which is, they are able to manipulate the language or play with it like a game. And I’ll give you a very specific example.

 

For example, spoken languages consist of sounds, and we don’t think in terms of individual sounds. When we talk, we know words, but we don’t think about each sound that comprises each word, right? But we do need to develop that sensitivity to sound in order to learn to read and write in an alphabetic language such as English, and that developed sensitivity to sound is called phonological awareness. Awareness of sound, basically. And what is phonological awareness? For example, we do simple tasks for the games that we ask little kids to play with us. Things such as, if I say the word mat and you remove the M sound from it, what do you have left? So the child should be able to identify the sound, take it away and come with at. So this is called phoneme deletion, Like we’re deleting the sound. Another example could be okay. Well, if we take the sound from the word math and replace it with the R sound in the word, what do you have? And then the child should say rat. This seems very obvious to us as very experienced language learners, but actually, believe it or not, it’s a hard difficult task for children, especially those who are not able to read and write yet.

 

But it’s a fundamental skill that they need to develop in order for them to learn to map those sounds into the letters when they start to learn to read. And in the end, it is not just a game. We know that children with better phonological awareness skills are better prepared to learn to read and write in an alphabetic language. And we also now know that even those skills are helpful for children who are learning to read and write in a non alphabetic language, such as Chinese. And when they have an easier time to learn to read, they also are more likely to do better in school because especially in the early elementary school years, is when reading and writing is basically the focus, primary focus, of school instruction.

 

Bilingual children also tend to be more efficient at some cognitive tasks, such as the ability to suppress distracting information in order to focus on what’s important, what’s the key or the ability to quickly switch their attention from one aspect of a task to another task. These are called inhibition or switching, and they’re both described as what we call executive functions, and they’re similarly skills that are highly valued in schools in order to perform well. So just to give you a more specific example for your listeners, if this is quite abstract.

 

Amy

Yeah, no examples are great. Perfect.

 

Stefka

An example of inhibition or that suppressing of irrelevant information would be when we give a child a very busy picture, but in our case would be, let’s say, little kids will do fish, little fish that are all swimming in one direction. But then one of that fish might swim with the other fish or may swim in the opposite direction of the fish. And we want the child to focus on that central fish and tell us which direction it’s swimming by ignoring the rest of the flock. So this is again, it seems simple, but actually, when you try to do it especially multiple times, takes time, and we notice that we usually know that bilinguals tend to be quicker at identifying the direction of the fish. An example of switching activities if we present a child with a pile of wooden blocks and half of the blocks are circles, and half of the blocks are squares, and also half of each circles and squares are green and the other half are red. So the point is we can categorize the blocks based on shape or based on color. And so first we’ll ask the children to separate the blocks based on shape, and they should put all the circles in one pile and all the squares in the other pile. And then they say, Well, now let’s mix them up again and now separate them based on color. So all the red ones should go in one pile, and all the green ones should go in the other pile. Again, the moment when the switching your attention from shape to color is what’s a little bit challenging. And all of us who have done that kind of activity, you sort of get used to paying attention to only one category. And then when you’re asked to switch, it takes a few milliseconds to switch your attention. And then we know that bilinguals tend to be faster in that moment of switching their attention. And on the other end of the spectrum, Research has also shown that in older adults, lifelong bilingualism tends to lead to a delayed onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s, and it does not prevent it, just to make it very clear. But it tends to delay the onset. And that’s another brainy benefit of being a lifelong bilingual.

 

Amy

I love that there are so many great examples and great things that can come. On that switching idea, actually, it made me think, tell me if this is aligned and the same kind of idea. But in schools, I’ll sometimes see posters where it has written words like words that are colors. So like the word Brown, but it’s written in purple ink. And then so you’re supposed to be able to say what color is the word. And it’s like tricky to be able to say purple instead of Brown when you’re seeing the word Brown.

 

Stefka

Absolutely. That’s a perfect example of inhibition. The task I was talking about, and it’s a classic experiment in psychology. It’s called the Stroop task, and it was originally designed by a psychologist. And exactly. So here what you’re seeing is the competition of information and you as a very fluent reader. So it’s become so automotized in your brain that you immediately latch on to reading the word, not paying attention to the color. And the challenge is when the task is to ask you, tell me the color of the print of the word. So if it’s Brown, even though it says purple, it spells purple. Right? And your inclination would be to read purple. And it’s much more challenging to suppress that. And then focus on Brown, which is the color of the ink. And again, that’s exactly a task where children have been shown bilingual children have been shown to be a little bit more efficient than monolingual.

 

Amy

So cool. So what about beyond these cognitive benefits? What about other benefits? Are there other reasons that parents might consider encouraging their children in bilingualism?

 

Stefka

I’m so glad that you asked this question because parents and scientists alike tend to focus primarily on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. And it makes sense, as I said before, they tend to be most useful in academic settings. And of course, we, as parents want our children to do well in school. So yes, it’s important. However, research has shown that these cognitive benefits tend to be not that prevalent. In particular, they tend to be observed only in young children very young children. Somewhere, as I said, between the ages of four and seven and an older adults at the other end of the spectrum, but tend to be nonexistent in young adults.

 And one of the hypotheses that is trying to explain that suggests that when we function at our peak performance, such as young adults, that’s when we are cognitively most efficient, the advantages of bilingualism are so small that at that point they disappear. We no longer can detect them, and we can only detect them in conditions which we’re not functioning at peak performance, such as young children still acquiring their language, or older adults who are experiencing or beginning to experience cognitive decay. But there are other benefits, absolutely, that could last throughout our lifespan, which is good to know as these are more what I would call on the social side of things.

It is pretty simple, really. So by speaking more than one language, it also opens more doors to new cultures because language and culture go hand in hand, and that could be extremely enriching, too, even in school settings. So, for example, for those of us who speak more than one language well enough that we can read literature in the other language, we know that translation just doesn’t do it, no matter how beautiful it is. Reading Goethe in original German is just not the same as reading it in English, so it gives you a different experience and different appreciation of the language and the culture. By speaking the language, we can get also much closer to the people who speak that language, their culture. We can understand their culture better. We can understand their history, their attitudes. For immigrant families in the United States. If the children learn the home language of their parents, they will also be more likely to communicate with relatives, presumably back in the other country on a much deeper level and make more meaningful connections with their family and their family past, which again, is something very important and enriching.

 

Amy

Well, we are going to take a quick minute and we will be right back.

The Growing Up Brainy Podcast is brought to you by smallTalk. smallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results in what we like to call brain magic, wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and giving them a different and better brain for a lifetime.

So Stefka, let’s talk about age, the age of learning a new language. It’s pretty common understanding that learning language earlier is better. I started learning a language in a second language in high school, and I can’t really say that I took it beyond high school. I stopped there, but with all that I learned and knowing that starting as a very young child or even as a baby is so important, I look at my nine year old and my eleven year old and then myself and I think, did I fail us all? Did I ruin this. Did I ruin our chances of ever having some proficiency in another language? So, first of all, is it true that it’s easier to learn while you’re younger? And if so, is there hope for us older learners?

 

Stefka

Well, I would say that learning earlier typically before the end of puberty, and that’s where the researchers haven’t quite reached an agreement yet. But just before puberty is different than learning it later. Of course, many younger learners end up being much better at learning the new language in the long run or what we call achieve possibly native like ultimate attainment in that language. On average, younger learners are more likely to speak a second language with little or no accent. They may make fewer grammatical errors, have larger vocabularies, no more words, and utilize slang, or Proverbs appropriately, et cetera. And while age may be one factor contributing to their success, there are many other factors that are just as important in helping in the process. And that’s good news for the older learners because those factors are even more important to them. So to answer your second question, there is definitely hope for older learners. First, research has shown that under the right circumstances, older learners can achieve similarly high degree of proficiency in their second language as younger learners. It’s not as common depending on the age of exposure, but it is possible.

So again, under the right circumstances, with the right degree of motivation, the person has the capacity to learn it, especially those that are, as I said, highly motivated and seek opportunities to expose themselves and use the second language as much as possible. And so do things such as live in a country where the second language is the dominant language, marry a partner, or live with a partner who is the native speaker of the second language, that helps a lot are much more likely to succeed from research, we also know that only in the area of pronunciation or accent, older learners tend to be at a disadvantage. That is, they tend to have stronger accents than foreign accents than younger learners. And although there are exceptions on both ends of the spectrum, so actually, there has been research on young learners and those exposed around the age of three to a second language, and they still have foreign accents later on in their young adulthood. And similarly, there are older learners who tend to achieve pronunciation indistinguishable from that of native speakers. So those are both more rare examples, but they exist on both ends of the spectrum.

 

Amy

So Stefka, we always like to wrap up with some questions that kind of take everything we’ve been talking about and make it applicable for those parents that are listening and wanting to take what they’re learning and put it into action. So let’s start with families that already have a bilingual household. So parents that speak two languages, whether that’s only one of the parents or both of the parents but how do babies and young children best learn multiple languages simultaneously? I know that one thing that I think I hear most commonly is that there’s a strategy to have one parent speak one language, let’s say English and the other language of Spanish, and that just sticks specifically to each parent having a single language with the child. Is there truth to that, or is there a better way? How would you suggest them to foster bilingualism in their child?

 

Stefka

This is a really good question, and I often get asked by other parents as well. I would start with the key information here is amount and quality of exposure. Those are the two important features that parents need to pay attention to when they want to raise a bilingual child. So the more amount of exposure and the higher quality of exposure to the second language or the two languages is really important. I also want to assure parents in bilingual homes that children do not get confused by being exposed to more than one language. I know that’s also a prevalent belief in people’s minds, and sometimes it may appear as if the child is confused when they tend to mix the two languages together. But actually what that mixing in the literature we call cold switching, and it’s considered to be a good thing, not a bad thing. And I’ll give you an example. We know from when we look at those mixed utterances that children produce and we analyze them and examine them more formally. We find out that they’re actually not just random mixing of the two languages, but they’re quite rule-governed. And that tells us that the child has learned at least the rules in one language and perhaps is applying them temporarily inappropriately to another language. But that shows that they have learned rules, at least in one language. Right. So it’s not that they’re just confusing it or have no clue what they’re doing. It’s actually quite well governed and structured. As a result, code switching is considered a good thing. It’s a normal developmental phenomenon. It’s also a normal phenomenon that even fluent bilinguals engage in because we sometimes tend to be sloppy and we don’t want to switch to the other language, or we can think of the word at the moment, and we know that the other person will just know it in Spanish as well as in English. So we’ll just switch between the two. Right? Having said that.

 

 

Also, I think this notion of one parent, one language is now considered old-fashioned, and it came in the past from this misunderstanding or concern that children will be confused by being exposed to languages. So trying to diminish that confusion, people, parents aim to provide a structure by mom speaks this language and dad speaks this language, and therefore you’re not going to be confused. We don’t need to worry about that anymore, and people can take that approach. But I think really what’s more helpful is to make the communication as natural and free flowing as possible. And research is showing that the context in which a language is used tends to be more influential than who speaks the language. And I’ll talk a little bit more about that. Another important thing is for parents to remember is to make sure to speak the language that they’re most comfortable with. So if I’m a Bulgarian native speaker and my husband is or my partner is a Bulgarian Speaker, and we both speak English as a second language. And English is our not very strong language, I would encourage families in that situation to speak their first language Bulgaria, in this case, because that would be the language that they know the best and they can get the highest quality of input, give the highest quality of input to their children. But if one parent speaks one language better than the other, of course. Again, the parent should speak the language that they’re most comfortable with, and that would guarantee the best bilingualism in their child. Another thing parents could do instead of picking one parent one language scenarios is better if they can establish context in which one language is spoken or another. For example, again, this assumes that both parents are pretty good bilinguals in both languages. Right, speak the same two languages. So if they speak Spanish and English at home, for example, breakfast could be the time when we all speak Spanish, and dinner would be the time when we all speak English, and that would be allowing, again, the context to dictate the conversation. Another way to look at it is also the content of the conversation. If we were talking about school or work related topics, maybe we should talk about them in English because that’s probably how we interact in our daily life with other people in English. And if we talk about our family or something about our community, then we speak in Spanish because that’s the language we typically encounter in that context. I hope that makes sense.

 

Amy

I love that. Those are great examples. Thank you. So the next example, I guess, would be the monolingual household. So take my husband and I, pretend that we had a baby that we were thinking about this from the get go or at least a young child, because again, ours are a bit older, but we only speak one language. And so if we wanted to bring a second language to our child, what are some tips on how to do that and how to give them that opportunity?

 

Stefka

This is great. I really like to hear families like that. So I’m just going to generalize and assume it’s a monolingual English speaking family who wants to expose their child to another language other than English. Really, what’s important here is simply having the desire on the parent’s side to instill an interest and appreciation in a new language, a new culture, is already a solid foundation that the parents can establish early on. So they’re already doing just having that desire and inspiration is a big plus. Make language learning fun, again, pretty obvious, but we don’t want it to be rigorous, boring exercises, but try and make it part of the daily life of the child. Make it familiar. Make the child comfortable with the idea that there’s more than one language that people speak around the world and around them, make it a natural experience for the child. So it’s not something that is foreign, that is scary, that is unfamiliar. So providing any opportunities for the children to hear new languages, interact with speakers of different languages allows the parents to engage in meaningful conversations with their children, even though they may be speaking in English with the child. But they’re talking about other languages. They’re talking about other cultures. They’re talking how positive that might be, and that inspires your spark, lights that spark in the child that potentially down the road can lead to the child learning more languages, being more curious and more open to doing that. And that would be great. My advice is for parents whose I one is English and do not have very high proficiency in another language is not to try to speak that other language for the same reasons that I already was saying. It’s more likely they’re not very comfortable, very proficient in that other language. They’re not likely to provide high quality of input for the child to learn the language well as well. And it’s not likely that the child will become bilingual in that language. By any stretch. It is better to seek resources again and opportunities that would provide the high quality that the child needs of exposure and the more of it, the better. So listening to foreign sounds. So just listening, again, to the fact that other people speak another language, listening to songs in another language or music from another culture is also a good way to again spark that interest, that desire that possibly will flourish down in their life.

 

Amy

I love that. And then lastly, for the parent who maybe is becoming intrigued and learning a new language themselves and feels that the time has passed. Pretend I’m not talking about myself. But if I were to want to learn a new language, it just seems so overwhelming. It seems like a very big task. So what would be your recommendation to start down a path like that?

 

Stefka

It’s never too late, especially for you. Amy. You’re not nearly at all close to the old end of the spectrum. So one thing, it’s never too late. And as I said, all things I’ve talked about already. So the desire, the motivation, seeking opportunities, a lot of the learning is on you as an older learner. So while children don’t have very much control over their learning environment, they’re kids, they do what their parents tell them to do, what their parents allowed them for them to do. As an adult, we have much more control of what we do and how we choose to spend our time. And therefore, again, it’s much more on the learner, the onus, to seek those opportunities to commit to them, to engage in them and with more experience, more practice, more opportunities, they will get better and better at it. So really, it boils down to find the motivation, seek the exposure to the language or in other words, practice, practice, practice. Ideally with native speakers. So again, to get that high quality of exposure. And if you have both of these conditions met and a strong desire or reason to learn the new language and you’re surrounded by this high quality of input, you will learn a new language no matter what age you are.

 

Amy

Well, thank you so much Stefka for joining us today. What I love about this episode is it wasn’t just educational, but it was inspirational. I think it’s so fun to dig into the science and discuss those best practices or the best scenario. If we can learn it early, learn it early, but then also being reminded that it’s okay to learn it later and that there are benefits beyond the cognitive benefits. There’s those cultural benefits there’s that understanding of other people around you. And just that curiosity is important even in bilingualism. So thank you so much for joining us today, and we really appreciate everything that you brought to the table.

 

Stefka

Thank you for having me. Much fun.

 

Amy

Well, that is all we have for you today. Thanks so much for joining us on Growing Up Brainy.  Till next time, we hope you’ll subscribe, leave us a review, or best of all, follow smallTalk.Tech on Instagram to join in the conversation.

Growing Up Brainy is brought to you by smallTalk. smallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results in what we like to call brain magic-- wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and gaining them a different and better brain for a lifetime. Look for our first product, the smallTalk Egg, launching this fall of 2021.

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