Plastic brains and the bilingual child

Plastic brains and the bilingual child


Babies are born with unformed, plastic brains. Their brains are ‘formed’ by their environment. A baby with a blind father, will grow up with all the skills to accommodate this situation. A baby who grows up in a family in which two different languages are used will also develop to match this environment.

Compared with adults, babies are extremely fortunate to have this mental flexibility. When adults try to learn a foreign language, they struggle to accommodate this new language in brains which have been formed and fixed by the lexical and grammatical systems of their mother tongue. Adults have difficulty in learning foreign languages because their brains are inflexible and not plastic.

‘Normal’ is the pattern we experienced as children, so using a foreign language is abnormal and feels unnatural. For the bilingual child, the use of more than one language is normal and natural.

Developing and ageing brains

Childhood exploration and discovery, combined with early education, form the young child’s brain into a configuration which is suitable for their environment. As the child grows into adolescence, adulthood and old age their brains become less plastic and less able to adapt to new environments.

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

This proverbial saying is a recognition of this loss of plasticity. The dog may be highly intelligent and may have learnt a variety of complex skills, but as the dog gets older it becomes more difficult to learn new patterns of behaviour.

As we grow older, we become ‘set in our ways’, our brains are more solid and less capable of adapting to new situations. In the film 2001, a space odyssey, the super computer HAL reverts to infancy as its processing circuits are gradually disconnected. In a poignant moment, the voice of HAL begins to sing: “Daisy, Daisy, Give me you answer, do” – the first song, which the computer had learned to sing after its construction.

“A sapling will bend in the wind, but an adult tree will be felled by a gale.”

As Herbert Puchta has said, babies are born with enormous potential computing power, but with no software and no instructions. Everyone who has tried to comfort a crying child, wishes that the child was fitted with a switch to reboot the child’s system software, in order to eliminate the problem.

Education and teaching

Educators are all software engineers. In schools, we attempt to install calculators and word processing programs in each child’s brain. We may also install maps, databases, security software and other programs which extend the potential of the child’s super computer. We help to create the child’s educational identity. But, with each new software programme we install, the child’s brain becomes more solid, but also less flexible.

Teachers teach what is possible, but also teach what is impossible. By being taught that certain things are impossible, we contribute to the destruction of the child’s creativity. By teaching that seven plus six does not equal twelve, we create limits on the child’s thinking. By teaching that giraffe exist but unicorns do not, we make the child’s brain more solid, less flexible and less elastic.


In Better English Pronunciation, J. D. O’Connor suggested that English children’s brains contained about forty-four ‘boxes’ representing forty-four distinct phonemes in English – so there in a box for /b/, a box for /ch/ and a box for /tch/ and so on. Connor suggested that when English people hear the sounds of a foreign language, they try to fit the sounds they into the forty-four boxes which they already know.

Many languages do not contain the two ‘th’ sounds heard in “That thing” so we will frequently hear learners saying “Zat sing” or “Dat ting”. They cannot find the appropriate phoneme from their mother tongue and so they use the nearest equivalent sound. Bilinguals do not have this problem and their accents mirror native speakers in all their languages.

Bilingual children and pronunciation

If you listen to the noises which babies make, in the babbling stage, before they can speak, you may notice that they create all the noises from all the languages in the world. At the babbling stage, the babies are experimenting with the capabilities of their lips, tongues, teeth and vocal chords. Babies can create all the phonemes required for all the languages in the world but, as they begin to learn their mother tongue, they forget most of this potential and start to create the phonemic boxes for their mother tongue.

Comfortable trilingualism

I recently spent a day with my great nephews, aged 8 and 10. They have an English-speaking mother and a French-speaking father. They live in Germany, where the boys are attending normal state primary school. The boys function happily in three languages and code-switch with ease. I was amazed by their fluency, accuracy and creativity in English. The boys had just returned from a summer break with their French cousins, where they had played and interacted with no hesitation or sense of language barrier. I gather that they are also progressing well at their German primary school.

This experience reminded me of the amazing power, flexibility and plasticity of young minds.

These boys will not only have the advantage of three languages, they will benefit from closeness to three cultures, each with a great literary heritage, musical catalogue and political history.

And now the good news

Recent research into ageing and Alzheimer’s disease has shown that brains which operate in more than one language retain cognitive functions for longer and are least likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s.

Declaration of interest

I am not a parent but I have had a life-long interest in child language development. The anecdotal evidence used in this article has been supplied by my relatives and friends who have bilingual children, and supported by my own observations. On hearing that I was preparing an article about language development in children, my consultant neurologist, Dr Jane Anderson said “Ah, plastic brains!”

Nick Dawson 2016


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