Early Childhood Education Journal

, Volume 46, Issue 1, pp 11–20 | Cite as

The Developing Bilingual Brain: What Parents and Teachers Should Know and Do

  • Kathleen A. J. Mohr
  • Stephanie M. Juth
  • Theresa L. Kohlmeier
  • Kayleen E. Schreiber


The field of neuroscience is now providing research findings about how the bilingual brain functions that can be used to promote richer and more successful dual-language development. This article summarizes recent research, then provides practical applications for parents and teachers of emergent bilinguals. Key understandings about how the brain processes first and subsequent languages are translated into ways to enrich instruction and family-based language and literacy experiences.


Dual-language learners Language development Neuroscience Family-based language and literacy practices Research-based practices 


  1. Adamy, J. (2016). Dual-language classes for kids grow in popularity. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from
  2. Adesope, O. O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2010). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 207–245.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Ball, J. (2011). Enhancing learning of children from diverse language backgrounds: Mother tongue-based bilingual or multilingual education in the early years. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).Google Scholar
  4. Barac, R., Bialystok, E., Castro, D. C., & Sanchez, M. (2014). The cognitive development of young dual language learners: A critical review. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29, 699–714.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Batterink, L. J., Oudiette, D., Reber, P. J., & Paller, K. A. (2014). Sleep facilitates learning a new linguistic rule. Neuropsychologia, 65, 169–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bialystok, E. (2007). Cognitive effects of bilingualism: How linguistic experience leads to cognitive change. The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 10(3), 210–223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bialystok, E. (2009). Bilingualism: The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Bilingualism, 12(1), 3–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bialystok, E. (2011). Reshaping the mind: The benefits of bilingualism. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(4), 229–235. doi: 10.1037/a0025406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bialystok, E., & Hakuta, A. (1999). Confounded age: Linguistic and cognitive factors in age differences for second language acquisition. In D. Birdsong (Ed.), Second language acquisition and the critical period hypothesis (pp. 161–181). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  10. Bjork, R. A., & Kroll, J. F. (2015). Desirable difficulties in vocabulary learning. American Journal of Psychology, 128(2), 241–252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Carew, T. J., & Magsamen, S. H. (2010). Neuroscience and education: An ideal partnership for producing evidence-based solutions to guide 21st century learning. Neuron, 67(5), 685–688.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cook, V. (1997). The consequences of bilingualism for cognitive processing. In A. M. D. de Groot & J. F. Kroll (Eds.), Tutorials in bilingualism: Psycholinguistic perspectives (pp. 279–299). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  13. Crawford, J. (1999). Bilingual education: History, politics, theory, and practice (4th edn.). Los Angeles: Bilingual Education Services.Google Scholar
  14. DeKeyser, R., & Larsen-Hall, J. (2005). What does the critical period really mean?. In E. F. Kroll & A. M. B. de Groot (Eds.), Handbook of bilingualism: Psycholinguistic approaches (pp. 89–108). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Dutcher, N., & Tucker, G. R. (1994). The use of first and second languages in education: A review of educational experience. Washington, DC: World Bank, East Asia and the Pacific Region, Country Department III.Google Scholar
  16. Gervain, J. (2015). Plasticity in early language acquisition: The effects of prenatal and early childhood experience. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 35, 13–20.
  17. Goetz, P. (2003). The effects of bilingualism on theory of mind development. Bilingualism, 6, 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hakuta, K. (1986). Mirror of language: The debate on bilingualism. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  19. Jasinska, K. K., & Petitto, L. A. (2013). How age of bilingual exposure can change the neural systems for language in the developing brain: A functional near infrared spectroscopy investigation of syntactic processing in monolingual and bilingual children. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 6, 87–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Jusczyk, P. W., Friederici, A. D., Wessels, J. M., Svenkerud, V. Y., & Jusczyk, A. M. (1993). Infants′ sensitivity to the sound patterns of native language words. Journal of memory and language, 32(3), 402–420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kaiser, A., Eppenberger, L. S., Smieskova, R., Borgwardt, S., Kuenzli, E., Radue, E. W., & Bendfeldt, K. (2015). Age of second language acquisition in multilinguals has an impact on gray matter volume in language-associated brain areas. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1–9.Google Scholar
  22. Kovelman, I., Baker, S. A., & Petitto, L. A. (2008a). Bilingual and monolingual brains compared: A functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation of syntactic processing and a possible “neural signature” of bilingualism. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(1), 153–169.Google Scholar
  23. Kovelman, I., Shalinsky, M. H., Berens, M. S., & Petitto, L. A. (2008b). Shining new light on the brain’s “bilingual signature”: A functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy investigation of semantic processing. NeuroImage, 39(3), 1457–1471.Google Scholar
  24. Krashen, S. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. London: Longman.Google Scholar
  25. Krizman, J., Skoe, E., Marian, V., & Kraus, N. (2014). Bilingualism increases neural response consistency and attentional control: Evidence for sensory and cognitive coupling. Brain and Language, 128(1), 34–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kroll, J. F., & Bialystok, E. (2013). Understanding the consequences of bilingualism for language processing and cognition. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 25(5), 497–514.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kroll, J. F., Bobb, S. C., & Hoshino, N. (2014). Two languages in mind: Bilingualism as a tool to investigate language, cognition, and the brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(3), 159–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kuhl, P. K., Tsao, F. M., & Lui, H. M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 100(15), 9096–9101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kuo, L. J., & Anderson, R. C. (2012). Effects of early bilingualism on learning phonological regularities in a new language. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 11(3), 455–467.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). The biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  31. Li, S., Ying, L., & Pui, F. K. (2011). Lexical development in Mandarin-English bilingual children. Bilingualism, 14(4), 579–587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. MacLeod, A. A., Fabiano-Smith, L., Boegner-Pagé, S., & Fontolliet, S. (2013). Simultaneous bilingual language acquisition: The role of parental input on receptive vocabulary development. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 29(1), 131–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. MacSwain, J., & Pray, L. (2005). Learning English bilingually: Age of onset of exposure and rate of acquisition among English language learners in a bilingual education program. Bilingual Research Journal, 29(3), 653–678.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. McNeil, L. (2012). Extending the compensatory model of second language reading. System, 40, 64–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Michael, E. B., & Gollan, T. H. (2005). Being and becoming bilingual: Individual differences and consequences for language production. In A. M. B. Degroot (Ed.), Handbook of bilingualism: Polylinguistic practices (pp. 389–407). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Miyake, A., Friedman, N. P., Emerson, M. J., Witzki, A. H., Howerter, A., & Wagner, T. D. (2000). The unity and diversity of executive functions and their contributions to complex frontal lobe tasks: A latent variable analysis. Cognitive Psychology, 41, 49–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Mohades, S., Van Schuerbeek, P., Rosseel, Y., Van De Craen, P., Luypaert, R., & Baeken, C. (2015). White-matter development is different in bilingual and monolingual children: A longitudinal DTI study. PLoS ONE 10(2):1–16. Accessed March 9, 2016.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Moll, L. C., & Dworin, J. E. (1996). Biliteracy development in classrooms: Social dynamics and cultural possibilities. In D. Hicks (Ed.), Discourse, learning and schooling (pp. 221–246). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Nayak, N., Hansen, N., Krueger, N., & McLaughlin, B. (1990). Language-learning strategies in monolingual and bilingual adults. Language Learning, 40, 221–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Paradis, J. (2001). Do bilingual two-year-olds have separate phonological systems? International Journal of Bilingualism, 5(1), 19–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. B. (2010). Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.Google Scholar
  42. Paradis, J., & Jia, R. (2016). Bilingual children’s long-term outcomes in English as a second language: Language environment factors shape individual differences in catching up with monolinguals. Developmental Science, 19(4), 1–15.
  43. Pearson, B. Z. (2007). Social factors in childhood bilingualism in the United States. Applied Psycholinguistics, 28(3), 399–410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Petitto, L. (2009). New discoveries from the bilingual brain and mind across the life span: Implications for education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 3(4), 185–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Petitto, L. A., Berens, M. S., Kovelman, I., Dubins, M. H., Jasinska, K., & Shalinsky, M. (2012). The “Perceptual Wedge Hypothesis” as the basis for bilingual babies’ phonetic processing advantage: New insights from fNIRS brain imaging. Brain and Language, 121(2), 130–143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Petitto, L. A., Katerelos, M., Levy, B. G., Gauna, K., Tétreault, K., & Ferraro, V. (2001). Bilingual signed and spoken language acquisition from birth: Implications for the mechanisms underlying early bilingual language acquisition. Journal of Child Language, 28(2), 453–496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Prevoo, M. J., Malda, M., Mesman, J., Emmen, R. A., Yeniad, N., Van Ijzendoorn, M. H., & Linting, M. (2014). Predicting ethnic minority children’s vocabulary from socioeconomic status, maternal language and home reading input: Different pathways for host and ethnic language. Journal of Child Language, 41(5), 963–984.
  48. Ransdell, S., Arecco, M. R., & Levy, C. M. (2001). Bilingual long-term working memory: The effects of working memory loads on writing quality and fluency. Applied Psycholinguistics, 22, 113–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Rodriguez-Fornells, A., Rotte, M., Heinze, H., Nösselt, T., & Münte, T. F. (2002). Brain potential and functional MRI evidence for how to handle two languages with one brain. Nature, 415(6875), 1026–1029. doi: 10.1038/4151026a.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Sigman, M., Pena, M., Goldin, A. P., & Ribeiro, S. (2014). Neuroscience and education: Prime time to build the bridge. Nature Neuroscience, 17, 497–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Snow, C. (2002). Epilogue. In C. T. Adger, C. E. Snow, & D. Christian (Eds.) What teachers need to know about language (pp. 123–130). McHenry, IL: Delta Systems.Google Scholar
  52. Special Eurobarometer. (2006). Europeans and their languages. European Commission.Google Scholar
  53. Stocco, A., Yamasaki, B., Natalenko, R., & Prat, C. S. (2014). Bilingual brain training: A neurobiological framework of how bilingual experience improves executive function. International Journal of Bilingualism, 18(1), 67–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Taguchi, E., Gorsuch, G., Lems, K., & Rosszell, R. (2016). Scaffolding in L2 reading: How repetition and an auditory model help readers. Reading in a Foreign Language 28(1), 101–117.Google Scholar
  55. van Heuven, W. J., & Dijkstra, T. (2010). Language comprehension in the bilingual brain: fMRI and ERP support for psycholinguistic models. Brain Research Reviews, 64(1), 104–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wesche, M. B. (2002). Early French Immersion: How has the original Canadian model stood the test of time? In: P. Burmeister, T. Piske & A. Rohde (Eds.) An integrated view of language development. Papers in honour of Henning Wode (pp. 357–379). Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag.
  58. Wong, B., Yin, B., & O’Brien, B. (2016). Neurolinguistics: Structure, function, and connectivity in the bilingual brain. BioMed Research International. doi: 10.1155/2016/7069274.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathleen A. J. Mohr
    • 1
  • Stephanie M. Juth
    • 2
  • Theresa L. Kohlmeier
    • 3
  • Kayleen E. Schreiber
    • 4
  1. 1.Utah State UniversityNorth LoganUSA
  2. 2.Utah State UniversitySmithfieldUSA
  3. 3.Utah State UniversityLoganUSA
  4. 4.University of IowaIowa CityUSA

Personalised recommendations