Expanding the Brain’s Capacity with Second Language Learning

second language

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela

The impact of globalization coupled with the marketability of communicating in more than one language has given rise to innovative language programs that capitalize on second language acquisition at an early age. By helping English language learners and native English speakers achieve high standards in English and another language, dual language programs can be an effective tool for schools and districts (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007). In creating dual language learners, a greater understanding of the brain’s language processing systems and the impact of early acquisition of a second language on brain function supports and informs best practices in education.

So is earlier better?

A common belief in second language acquisition is that there is an optimal time or critical period when a second language is best learned. During the early years of life, the critical period is commonly defined as beginning between three and five years of age and ending prior to puberty. In studies of adults who started learning the second language at different ages, the earlier the individuals began learning the second language, the higher the level of proficiency they ultimately attained in that language (Birdsong and Molis 2001; Jia, Aaronson, and Wu 2002; Johnson and Newport 1989). The good news is that if second language acquisition starts at an early age, the chances of becoming proficient in that target language is high! The bad news is that as we age, our chance of attaining the same level of proficiency decreases.

So what is happening in the brain?

Several studies indicate that second language proficiency, as well as the age of acquisition, affects patterns of brain activity (Perani et al. 2003). To measure the patterns of brain’s activity, the structural magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is used. The fMRI measures brain activity by the change of blood flow in the brain. Mechelli and others (2004) used structural fMRI to study gray matter volumes in the brain’s cerebral cortex in bilingual and monolingual adults. In Mechelli’s study, the brain’s gray matter density in the inferior parietal area was greater in the bilingual adults as compared to the monolingual adults. The density was greater for bilingual adults who had learned their language prior to age five.

For those bilingual adults most proficient in the second language, the gray matter was the densest. Is being dense a good thing? In this case, it is. Strategies for speech processing, enhanced attentive abilities and discriminating sounds all increase the cognitive load for a brain engaged in second language acquisition. This increased load may recruit additional neural tissue thus creating density in the gray matter (Conboy et.al 2006).

Utilizing fMRIs with children is limited and usually the subjects are older children. In an fMRI study of word processing with bilingual children, there were no differences in activation patterns across the two languages (Mondt et.al 2009). In another fMRI study, children showed similar activation in a left-hemisphere language region for the first language but different activation levels for the second language, which were linked to proficiency levels (Tatsuno and Sakai 2005). Evidence of executive function being utilized to a greater extent among bilingual children to monolingual children was reported in fMRI studies (Archila-Suerte et al. 2012). As a result of a second language being learned, the anatomy of the brain changes. These changes may be viewed as a positive adaptation that can enhance other aspects of learning (Conboy 2013).

What are the cognitive consequences of the brain changes?

Understanding the differences between the monolingual and bilingual brain begs the question, are there cognitive differences as well? Continuing concern about dual language learning affecting the language and cognitive development of younger students stymies parents and educators. Will the process slow the progression of learning in the native language? Can the brain make sense of simultaneous language learning? Won’t the child be confused? Overall, research indicates that learning and speaking more than one language bequeaths a cognitive advantage in a variety of tasks that is detectable as early as seven months of age (Kovacs and Mehler 2009), persists throughout childhood to adulthood, and even offers some protection against symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia (Craik et.al 2010). The cognitive demands of managing two languages may sharpen abilities in other domains, and these enhanced cognitive abilities may be used to further process and learn language (Conboy 2013). The opportunity to expand the brain’s capacity through natural processes of second language experiences is critical to an efficacious dual language program model.

What second language experiences are important?

Building a framework that balances language experiences is critical. Children who are more balanced in their bilingualism show larger advantages than children who are more strongly dominant in one language (Ricciardelli 1992). Creating authentic second language experiences requires thoughtful and intentional structures that engage the brain and create meaningful learning experiences. The use of memory, exposure to the second language, interaction with native speakers and multiple medians to make meaning of the second language are critical to creating balanced bilinguals.

How are meaningful second language experiences created?

Rising in national popularity are dual language models that blend native speakers and non-native speakers together to learn subject content through the median of a second language. Dual language programs use the target language as the medium of subject content instruction by alternating days and times where students are immersed in the second language. Dual language programs provide literacy and content instruction to all students through two languages and that promotes bilingualism and biliteracy, grade-level academic achievement, and multicultural competence for all students (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007). The brain challenge for the student is to make meaning of the instruction presented through the second language. The teacher challenge is to present the instructional material in a variety of ways that engage and provide comprehensible input for the student.

Meeting the challenge

The dual language classroom is a mixture of linguistic, cultural and social diversity. The dual language classroom addresses a broader goal of education, the use of two languages to educate generally, meaningfully, equitably, and for tolerance and appreciation of diversity with the narrower goal of learning a second language (Garcia 2009). Bringing the linguistic goal to fruition requires a tight coupling of instruction and engagement.

The use of episodic memory (a memory which is stored in relationship to a specific location or experience) is the best friend of the dual language teacher. The dual language teacher utilizes episodic memory by intentionally choosing the location where instruction is delivered. In dual language programs, location separates languages (each classroom or location within a classroom represents a target language). When a student is in the classroom, episodic memory is an important strategy for accessing memory for language. Children in a dual language environment continually manage and monitor the communicative situation to determine what language is being spoken and how to respond appropriately (Comeau and Genesee 2001; Yow and Markman 2011). The heightened monitoring of the dual language student to determine how and in what language to engage leads to greater cognitive strategies thus creating the cognitive load believed to result in the recruiting of additional neural tissue and greater brain density (Conboy et.al 2006).

So is the bilingual brain faster and smarter?

There are many similarities as well as differences between bilingual and monolingual language processing. It is important to note that the differences should not be viewed as deficits, but rather, as opportunities for expanding the brain’s capacity (Conboy 2013). Additionally, assessments that are developed to measure monolingual abilities are never appropriate to measure bilingual abilities. Monolingual standards are inappropriate for measuring dual language learners. Developmental milestones are achieved at similar ages in dual language learners as in monolingual learners, but might be achieved in slightly different ways (Conboy 2013). Each brain and learner is unique and each achieves in different ways.

Is learning a second language good for the brain?

Yes! As humans, our brain is wired for communication. We spend life making sense of our world and communicating our meaning. In school, success is measured by academic achievement. Linguistic and academic achievement tends to go hand in hand (Garcia, 2009). Success in the global market depends on our ability to communicate meaning effectively and across a variety of contexts. Learning that challenges and expands the brain’s capacity is a good thing!

What does this mean for schools?

Reflected in our students’ faces is the linguistic and cultural diversity that represents the United States and our world. Capitalizing on linguistic diversity can be best achieved through instituting language instruction and programs that optimize the brain’s learning. Organic dual language programming takes into consideration the capacity, resources and culture where dual language is to thrive. Students instructed in a dual language model receive a well-rounded, robust educational experience in an additive bilingual environment. (Lewis, Rivera & Roby, 2013).

Action Steps:

For 21st century schools, the institution of learning a second language as subject content must be replaced by earlier access to second language instruction with the goal of relevant and authentic communication and learning. This goal can be achieved through:

  • Reframing bilingual education programming to reflect an additive and enrichment approach
  • Incorporating neuroscience findings as a context for supporting early second language acquisition and learning structures
  • Instituting dual language programming across all curricular areas beginning in the kinder grades
  • Ensuring the program structures are organic and
  • BELIEVING that all students have the brain power to be successful learning in multiple languages!


Collier, V. & Thomas, W. (2009). Educating English Learners for a Transformed World. Fuentes Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Conboy, B. (2013) Neuroscience Research: How Experience with One or More Languages Affects the Developing Brain. California’s Best Practices for Young Dual Language Learners: Research Overview Papers. California Department of Education (CDE) State Advisory Council on Early Learning and Care. Sacramento, CA 95814.

Lewis, L., Rivera, A. & Roby, D. (2013). Dual Language Programming: Building Sustainable Frameworks from Development to Evaluation. In-print Education Advocates Leadership & Learning (lezleylewis17@gmail.com).

Howard, E.R., Sugarman, J., Christian, D., Lindholm-Leary, K.J., & Rogers, D. (2007) Guiding principles for dual language (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C: Center for Applied Linguistics.

García, Ofelia. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Malden, Ma. and Oxford: Basil/Blackwell.

Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

1 Comment

  1. I love the idea of second language learning and becoming a bilingual society.if a child is learning two languages in the early years and the child is code switching what should a parent do in that situation? How can one make the distinction to the child that there are two different languages being spoken and which words go with which one?

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