Bilingualism Benefits Young Brains … and older ones, too.

by cv harquail on June 3, 2014

From WarmStateMomma:

For parents raising bilingual kids (or trying to) – I saw this article about a study on bilingualism:9259334570_a5a90447a5_z

“Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence,” said lead author Dr. Thomas Bak, of the University of Edinburgh, in a press release. “Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain.”

For the study, researchers relied on data from 835 native speakers of English who were born and living in the area of Edinburgh, Scotland. The participants were given an intelligence test in 1947 at age 11 and then again in their early 70s, between 2008 and 2010.

Findings indicate that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would be expected from their baseline. The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading.

Sure, there are only a few situations where it makes sense to expect that your child/ren can actually learn a second language from your Au Pair.  But, it never hurts to learn a little bit. As long as it’s more than just the swear words.

This is true for parents as well as kids. As the study pointed out:  The effects of become bilingual were evident no matter when the second language was learned.


WarmStateMomma June 3, 2014 at 6:26 pm

For the HFs having their APs speak another language with the kids: how old are your kids and what have you found works/doesn’t? Any books you recommend?

HD and I don’t speak a second language well enough to raise our toddler bilingual, but the AP speaks only Mandarin with her. She understands both languages equally well and speaks more Mandarin than English (probably because the sounds are easier for her to master at this stage). We’d love to keep this going for her and baby 2.

Old China Hand June 3, 2014 at 8:03 pm

We are in a similar situation to you but I speak mandarin. I don’t feel like I speak it well enough to speak it exclusively with my son, but he does hear me speaking mandarin to our ap a lot. He is 2. Baby two is coming this summer. My son speaks more Chinese than English (I have heard this about other bilingual Chinese/English kids, even when parents are English speakers) and because the ap cares more about teaching him random commands, he knows more of those things and more body parts in Chinese. I wish we had good Chinese books to read to him. We have a few she brought and because they have pinyin, I can comfortably read them to him (to clarify – I am conversant in Chinese, or maybe a bit more advanced than that, but if don’t necessarily know how to read the characters for giraffe without looking them up… The pinyin lets me avoid that.). I hate the books though. So I wish we had some that weren’t variations on “kid does this bad thing and then this happens”.

I am worried about our 6 months without an ap while I am on leave. How many hours a week do I need a Chinese student to hang out with him speaking Chinese?

WarmStateMomma June 4, 2014 at 8:27 am

For books, we buy them at or we buy American books translated into Chinese on Amazon (some are cheap; some are not). We find some in the Chinese bookstores here, but they are expensive and have story lines we wouldn’t normally choose.

Taking a Computer Lunch June 4, 2014 at 9:21 pm

AP #1 spoke Brazilian Portuguese to child #2 from the time he was 5 months old. Because she spent 45 hours a week with him, by the time he was 18 months old, more than 50% of his vocabulary was Portuguese. Nevertheless, by the time he was 2 – even though his default language with people he had never met was Portuguese, he could switch to English on a dime when he recognized the English-only vocabulary. We hired a graduate student to work with him for 2 afternoons a week after AP #1 left, because AP #2 was from a non-Portuguese speaking European country. It wasn’t enough. By the time AP #3 arrived (Brazilian) he could respond in English to Portuguese, but he had lost his absolute bilingualism.

I’d say if you want to retain bilingualism, then you’d have to speak to child #1 100% of the time in Mandarin, even if it wasn’t the best, for him to retain the language for 6 months. Your husband could speak to him in English.

WestMom June 5, 2014 at 10:37 am

I hear you… We had a Spanish-speaking nanny from birth to 4, and our twins developed a good understanding of Spanish, and could even speak it a little. We then switched from Spanish nanny to French AP, and soon after their Spanish skills completely evaporated. (That being said, we have not tried Spanish again and I am sure they would probably pick it up more easily).

At the time, people were amazed thinking our kids would be ‘trilingual’. The reality is a bit more complicated and the second/third language acquisition needs constant maintetance in order to be retained.

Despite all this, it’s a wonderful project and worth all the effort! Our oldest is taking Italian in Middle School now and she says it’s sooooo easy.

WarmStateMomma June 5, 2014 at 11:10 am


The books I’ve read say that 6-8 months is a prime window for infants to hear/select the linguistic sounds they retain. They’re born with the ability to learn any language, but their brains narrow down the sounds they can distinguish at this stage to the ones they hear often enough. So your new AP’s arrival should be well-timed!

The other thing I’ve read is that TV/CDs don’t work for infants. They need a live human interacting with them to pay attention to the language.

The trouble we’ve had is resisting the urge to speak “bad Mandarin” at home. When HD and I learn a word the little one uses 40 times a day, it’s hard to resist calling the dog a “go-go.” We know we’re mucking up the tones and butchering the language, but we’ve fallen into a bad habit. She now says “go-go” improperly, but she has the right tone and accent for words we don’t try to say.

There is nothing sweeter than hearing her say, “xie-xie, Mama” in her tiny voice.

Old China Hand June 5, 2014 at 4:53 pm

Thanks for all the advice. I think we’ll be great for child 2 with the Chinese. I don’t know if I can really handle speaking only Chinese to child 1, but I definitely can try. It would be good for the baby, since I’ll be home full time with both of them. Heck, it will be good for my mandarin too. I don’t think my mandarin is truly horrible, as I started learning at 6, and I am somewhere between conversant and fluent, but it’s definitely not perfect.

We will have the Chinese student hang out with him, but realistically, it won’t be anywhere near the 45 hours a week he has with the au pair right now.

Thanks again!

WarmStateMomma June 12, 2014 at 10:58 am

Thanks for the leads about the blog and the FB group. A guy in another office found out about our Chinese AP and he’s calling me today to get the scoop. I passed on the blog and FB info to him as well.

Old China Hand June 12, 2014 at 11:59 am


Gretchen June 3, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Our primary reason for having an au pair is for the exposure to language. We are raising our children bilingually. When our two children were born, we were living in Switzerland and so both of our children have spoken English and German since birth. Once we moved back to the US, when our children were still toddlers, we continued with German by hosting German au pairs. The au pairs speak only German to our children. My husband and I both speak some German, but actually rarely speak it with the children. We don’t want them learning our “foreign accents” or incorrect grammar!

Now at 5 and 4 years old, both children understand German as well as they understand English. Our five year old is able to easily switch back and forth between the two languages and speaks German perfectly and without an accent. Our four year old is still at the stage where she sometimes mixes up the words, but it is getting less and less. She too will likely be able to go back and forth between the two languages with little difficulty.

We will continue to host au pairs for at least a few more years. They will also soon be old enough to take German classes at a local German language school. In addition, we are considering hosting German exchange students once the children are too old to need an au pair any longer.

WarmStateMomma June 4, 2014 at 10:22 am

I know families who hosted exchange students when their own children were studying the language. Their success varied based on the kids’ internal motivation to learn the language. We will host exchange students again in the future.

WestMom June 4, 2014 at 10:54 am

I also think a year abroad might be tremendously helpful. Sending the kids as exchange students themselves, perhaps in a gap year might be a great way to solidify that second language… I have many friends participating the AFS program when I was in high school.

CaliHostMom June 4, 2014 at 5:43 pm

We always had APs from Germany and had them speak German to the kids since they were babies. We supplemented with German Saturday school for more formal training in writing and grammar. The kids would never really speak German (they’d reply in English) but they understand most everything as if they were native speakers. I am so happy we did this. Language acquisition is so much easier when kids are very young. Though my DH and I are not German and don’t speak it fluently, I always felt that acquiring a 2nd language naturally would be a huge benefit to the AP program and it has been. We have hosted German exchange students and will do so again. We don’t need au pairs any more but their lasting legacy for us has been that the kids can speak German.

Abba June 3, 2014 at 9:50 pm

Great topic, and very timely for us right now. We started using au pairs when we had a hard time finding good, local, native-Spanish-speaking caregivers (which we used from about 12 months until our twins were 2 1/2).

Interestingly, I have found that the childrens’ spoken Spanish has declined since our current au pair (who is otherwise fabulous) started last year. She speaks in Spanish with them, as we agreed upon when matching with her, but doesn’t do a great job of encouraging them to respond to her in Spanish so they end up just speaking English to her. Prior to her arrival, the kids spoke only Spanish with their caregivers (whether nannies or au pairs). Part of this probably has to do with age and them wanting to be in control of what language they’re speaking, but I think a lot of it has to do with approach (for example, when Spanish-speaking friends come over they are often able to engage the kids in speaking Spanish).

In any case, this has raised a surprising issue for us, which is that having our au pair speak to the kids solely in Spanish isn’t enough to get them speaking Spanish themselves. I’m kind of at a loss for how to proceed and not sure how we will reinforce the bilingualism when the kids get older (at this point they do understand everything, and can watch movies and TV in Spanish, and respond to complicated commands, but only rarely speak Spanish).

About the question about books–I found The Bilingual Edge after recommendations on a much older thread here. I found it useful (but I sure wish the authors would lay off the exclamation points).

WestMom June 4, 2014 at 9:26 am

Abba- See my post below about siblings. I have twins too, and I observed that the language they decide to communicate in together is very defining of what will become their dominant language. Unfortunately, I think we have little control over that…

Also, if your children sense that AP can understand just as well in English, they may not try as hard to communicate in Spanish. I personally play dumb when they speak to me in English, and say ‘Quoi?’, and then they repeat in French. I ask our AP to do the same. Takes some practice…

Abba June 4, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Thanks West Mom! I wish my Spanish were as good as your French–then I could participate in this in a more meaningful way. But it’s very helpful to hear that others have had similar struggles and that the benefits are there, even if they’re not always visible or immediate. I so wish we lived in a major metropolitan area–I’d enroll them in an immersion school in a heartbeat.

4th time lucky?! June 4, 2014 at 12:10 am

A more general observation on bilingual kids/ families (not so much AP related):
Most families I know noticed their kids will simply stop speaking the second language at some point (depending on age, degree of immersion in local culture and how different the local culture is to the ‘home’ culture – e.g. rebellion of teenage kids), some I know never actively speak the second language while in their current environment but will be ok when visiting relatives who only speak the other language (regardless of how much or little they speak the language at home), others are more lucky and kids speak fluently and happily converse in both language (or sometimes three, as in case of friends where kids with UK dad and German mum live in Spain).

No good advice as to how to get them to use the ‘other’ language more other than not to force them (like withholding things/ not doing something they ask unless they use the ‘right’ language, which usually just leads to resentment).
And, yes, having conversations while the children are around is very important too (as opposed to just one person talking with and at them).

I think it’s crucial to remember that the foundations are laid; no matter how much speaking practice they’ve had they will be able to get fluent in no time once they are exposed to the language in its native environment. And just being exposed to a second language will make learning other languages at lot easier too.

CaliHostMom June 11, 2014 at 11:50 am

4th Time Lucky, I agree with all you’ve said. It’s the laying of the foundation that is so important. And, in my experience of 14 years of exposing my kids to a second language, it is very difficult (impossible) to get my kids to speak in the second language when they are physically in an environment with the dominant language. That is just how it is. Trying to force it never seemed to work. But on occasions when I feared the kids were incapable of speaking German and could only understand it, I was proved wrong. Once they were placed in a German-only environment (e.g. Germany or a day trip with Germans who did not speak English), it was as if a light switch turned on and they could speak German. Not perfectly, but well enough. So to those parents who are trying to encourage that second language, keep hiring APs who speak that language and train them to always speak in that language to the kids even if the kids respond in English; keep up the exposure to the 2nd language in every possible way such as books, movies, YouTube, games, Saturday schools, trips; and don’t let there be a lapse.

Abba June 11, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Music to my ears! Thanks CaliHostMom and 4th Time Lucky. I will redirect my energy from being frustrated with our AP for not encouraging the kids to speak their second language with her into more productive pursuits :)

WestMom June 4, 2014 at 9:20 am

Thanks for this topic. Bilingualism is probably 50% of the reason why we participate in the Au Pair program. I think it’s a wonderful way to expose children to another language.

Our children are 12, 9, 9 so we are only about halfway in their education, but I have learned a lot along the way. I am a native French speaker (Canada). Our children are fluent in French, but English is their dominant language. Perhaps some of these insights might be helpful to others who intend to raise bilingual kids.

I think it is important to always speak to the children in one language. I speak French with the kids, except when English speakers are around (including dad). We expect our AP to speak in French at all times. Selfishly, it helps to have an Au Pair who doesn’t speak English so well, because it forces the children to speak French with her. We once had a Swiss AP who spoke 5 languages fluently, and the kids picked up right away that they could speak English with her. This AP was so fluent that I honestly think she did not realize which language she was answering in.

It’s great to start as early as possible. For our twins, we had a Spanish speaking nanny for the first 4 years. We did not start with the Au Pair program until the little ones started kindergarten. I am sure having a French AP during those early years would have help strengthen their foundation.

I keep with it relentlessly. I remind my children all the time to answer back in French, I buy magazines in French, we watch movies, we travel, we Skype with relatives. Kids are like sponges at that age, but if it is not maintained, it just slowly disappears.
A few interesting observations: I think it is easier to raise a bilingual only child or first child. In our case, our first born had the first 3 years of her life in 50/50 French/English environment. It was a great foundation. But as soon as the siblings were born, it is very hard to influence which language they choose to communicate in. Our children always speak English together, so their practice of spoken French is a lot less.

Also, school is a huge influencer. We actually have our children in a bilingual school. But even there, we cannot influence how they choose to communicate with their peers. They basically spend 70% of their class time in French, but all recess, lunch, bus, and other free time is done speaking English.

So in a nutshell, just keep with it! Learning another language is a life-long project that requires time, energy and diligence. It is a great gift to give our children, and I hope they foster this gift into adulthood.

WarmStateMomma June 4, 2014 at 10:16 am

We haven’t looked for great English skills, and I see the logic in looking for poor English skills. Both of our Chinese APs speak much better English than we expected. I asked our current AP if she’d been practicing between making the application video and arriving in the US because her English is so much better than we anticipated. She told us the agency in China tells them to speak English in the slow, stilted manner for the video because that’s what the agency thinks proper English sounds like. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that our APs speak English so well, but I now realize this is something else that’s difficult to determine during the matching process.

There are some Mandarin summer day camps and art/dance classes run by local Chinese cultural centers (with mostly kids of Chinese heritage in the website photos), so perhaps we should look into these when the kids are old enough. We are lucky to live in a diverse area where there are always Mandarin speakers at any public place where young children interact.

Interesting observation about the sibling conversations….

Taking a Computer Lunch June 4, 2014 at 9:29 pm

I live in a neighborhood that abuts a primarily Spanish-speaking neighborhood and I see the same thing. When the kids play together, they play in English, but they respond in Spanish to their parents.

I worked hard to keep my son bilingual, but gave up by the time he was 5. We had books (purchased in Brazil), movies (purchased in Brazil), and comic books (purchased in Brazil), but without Brazilian APs, he lost it completely within a year. He did go to a Spanish-immersion school and did well for a while, as long as he respected the teachers. Now, it’s like pulling teeth to get him to study a foreign language.

Why did I do this? Because it was so painful to learn my first foreign language at 14. So far, it seems like it backfired.

American Host Mom in Europe June 5, 2014 at 5:26 am

I think much of this is kid-specific. My situation is the reverse of most posters; we live in a non-English speaking country (although English is widely spoken and taught at school from around age 7). I don’t speak the local language fluently (barely conversational) and hubby is a native here. We spoke English with our first child so I’d always understand, and same when our twins were born, although by then my older daughter had started hearing some local language from her grandparents, who don’t speak any English. My husband occasionally reads to the kids in his language, but we mostly read in English. They started at preschool when the oldest was 3 and the twins started at 2 (6 months later), and while the staff all spoke some English with the kids at the beginning, my children very quickly learned to speak the local language. At 4,5 and 6, I am still hard pressed to say which language they are more comfortable in or will consider their native language. This is one of the reasons I require a fluent English speaking AP, so my kids hear English from more than just me, and hear other people speaking it together. What’s interesting is that my kids sometimes play together in English, and sometimes in the local language, and I can’t find a pattern of when they choose which.

Mimi June 5, 2014 at 5:28 pm

Language was also a biggie for us, but not for fluency. HD and I use other languages for communicating outside little ears and my family peppers any conversation with expressions or words. I wanted the boys exposed to other languages and cultures so that it was more of a recognized and accepted thing for them that would give them a foundation for lifelong learning.

The twins were preemies and were speech delayed so we decided not to push bilingual speech with them. We would speak German with them here and there (commands and little joking things…dog poop was a first word) but most of it was with the APs. They would ask what the German/Austrian words were for specific things and try to use the words whenever possible.

With our last match, I didn’t find out I was pregnant until after we had already matched and then we had to break that match because she wasn’t infant-qualified. We felt awful and then realized that we now had a tough task ahead of us to try and find an infant-qualified AP who could make our arrival date and deal with 3 rambunctious boys in addition to a baby on the way. There were no German/German speaking APs available so we eventually ended up with our first Italian.

My oldest takes Spanish in school and has expressed more of an interest in Italian than he did in German so we are trying to encourage that as much as possible and all the boys are already using simple words here and there (and taking an interest in Italian opera!). The APs English isn’t as good as our past APs ave been, so this might have something to do with that also.

We will continue to encourage them to learn as much as possible but not really push any language exclusively.

Old China Hand June 8, 2014 at 8:36 pm

For those of you working on bilingualism with English and Mandarin, I just stumbled across a facebook group dedicated to that. It seems to have great resources. Thank you also for encouraging me to speak only Chinese to my son after our AP leaves. I was practicing this weekend and I think I can handle it. But I am REALLY sick of the books we have, so getting better books is a first order of business.

colorado au pair June 12, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Well I was an au pair 2 years ago for 2 years as well. I currently live in my homecountry and I doing a Master´s degree in Teaching, I belong to a research group at university and I can say that I agree on this post. Our brain is amazing by itself, but if you stimulate it by learning anything, it would become even more amazing that it is already. Learning another language not only give us oportunities abroad, but it also provides us with a new perspective in how to see the world. it gives us cultural and linguistic tools to promoto acceptance and tolerance, and those skills are really important in a world like ours.

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