Research corner

27th March 2015 at 00:00

`White-Matter Development is Different in Bilingual and Monolingual Children: a longitudinal DTI study' by Mohades, S G, Van Schuerbeek, P, Rosseel, Y et al,

Plos One, February 2015

bit.lyBilingualMonolingual

Multiculturalism can help children to develop a rich sense of social tolerance; this study concludes that the presence of more than one language can also give children intellectual advantages over their monolingual classmates.

Using mean fractional-anisotropy (MFA) - a method of measuring the three-dimensional range of neurons - researchers examined the "neuroplasticity" of four white-matter language pathways in the brain. The two-year study looked at a group of 40 bilingual and monolingual children.

The researchers conclude that "simultaneous bilinguals" (children who learn two languages at once) and "sequential bilinguals" (those who learn a second language later) experience significant increases in the MFA value of their left inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus, a major neurological highway that connects the prefrontal brain regions responsible for literacy, numeracy and social functions to the occipital lobes (the visual processing centres).

Other white-matter "bundles" responsible for linguistic capabilities were seen to mature faster in bilingual children, including the corpus callosum, a wide track of neural fibres situated below the main cortex.

Bilingual schoolchildren can all reap the rewards of being simultaneously or sequentially bilingual, but those who learn languages implicitly rather than explicitly are the clear front-runners, according to the study. These are children who learn their secondary language from the age of 3 or 4. Overall, the magnitude of change in white matter was found to be related to the number of years of being bilingual.

Although gender variances are not explored, the researchers conclude that a larger investigation with a longer time frame could further the advance of one of neuroscience's foggiest areas: the effect of language on male and female neuroanatomical development.

Will Martin

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