The bilingual brain and online learning

Bilingualism has significant benefits to the brain. USAHello is working to improve our translations and add more auditory learning to our center.
Bilingualism has significant benefits to the brain. USAHello is working to improve our translations and add more auditory learning to our center.

As globalization is increasing, so is multilingualism. In 2013, 4.4 million K–12 students in the United States were English Language Learners (ELLs), meaning that their first language (and maybe even their second or third language) is not English.

Our mission at USAHello is to use technology to help refugees build new lives: a critical component to our mission’s success is the accessibility of our programs and resources. In an effort to make our site and courses more accessible to newcomers, many of whom were not able to attend school in their countries of origin, we are trying to not only translate our site into refugee languages but follow best practices based on the brain and bi-lingual learning.

The number of ELLs will only continue to grow in the coming decades  (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). 

To many, this presence of linguistically diverse communities is a problem – thinking that leads to education policies that will “solve” that “problem” through English immersion. However, overriding a child’s first language could hurt their relationship with their parents and communities, contradicting the aim of education to build on prior knowledge and personalized, unique skills. Additionally, getting rid of existing multilingualism is a waste of potential resources for the host community (Cummins 2001).

So how do we make sure that students are taught both effectively and efficiently, given the linguistic resources and demands of today’s world? Research on bilingualism has highlighted that bilingual students are actually a positive addition to learning environments (Cummins 2001). Bilingual individuals possess a deeper understanding of language and how to use it, are better able to concentrate (Ekiert 2003), demonstrate increased flexibility in thinking, and show an increased ability to multitask and switch between different commitments (Bialystok 1999). Therefore, in order to maximize the educational benefit for all students, we must understand how bi/multilingual learners differ from monolingual learners, so that we may have better-informed education policies and applications.

The Bilingual Brain

Research in the field of cognitive neuroscience and neurobiology has led to an enhanced understanding of the bi/multilingual brain. Cognitively, being fluent in multiple languages increases an individual’s ability to focus and can protect against age-related cognitive decline, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s (Bialystok, Craik, & Freedman 2007). Additionally, bilingual students reach language milestones at the same time as monolingual students in both languages, and starting from infancy, are able to keep the two languages distinct and avoid language confusion (Hernandez et al. 2001). As bilinguals get older, however, their ability to differentiate between distinct sounds decreases in their second language, starting as early as when they are six months old (Cheour et al. 1998).  

In terms of brain structure, MRI studies have shown that bilingual adults (particularly those who were bilingual by the age of five) have denser gray matter (brain tissue used for information processing), especially in the left hemisphere, which is mostly responsible for language (Mechelli et al. 2004). This finding indicates that bilingualism actually alters the brain’s structure. Processing for all learned languages predominantly occurs in the same left hemisphere brain regions. But when bilinguals are switching between their languages, they have enhanced right hemisphere activation that is not seen in monolingual individuals (Kovelman, Baker, & Petitto 2008).

This expanded neural activity happens in regions that are in charge of cognition and executive control, and it could be compensatory, demonstrating that bilinguals have enhanced neural support that could allow them to perform at least as well as monolinguals (Mechelli et al. 2004).


Given the countless advantages (both neurologically and socially) to being bilingual, education should not work against it, but rather should foster multiple-language acquisition and growth. Linguists and ELL educators unanimously note that multilingual education is the best practice for bilingual learning. CLIL (content and language integrated learning, or teaching some subjects in a second language) improves language learning and content learning (Rogers 2014). Additionally, brain imaging research highly supports multilingual education, given the numerous cognitive and structural neural benefits of bilingualism.

Finally, many researchers go so far as to say that the mother tongue should be prioritized (even within the multilingual classroom) because enhanced understanding in an individual’s mother tongue predicts how well that student performs overall, regardless of language (Cummins 2001).

The implications of this work are significant and future research should investigate the role of technology and multimodality in filling the oral and auditory gaps in the education of non-native English speakers. Comprehension and learning do not necessarily have to come from lecturing, a realization that many teachers have now acted on by assigning multimodal assignments, such as podcasting, blogging, mapping, and so on (Li 2013). Pippa Stein, a prominent ELL teacher and researcher, recognizes that language barriers exist and that many experiences and memories are instead channeled through other modalities.

This is particularly true in some cases, depending on the background of the ELL speakers and what his or her community cherished, which suggests that oral or kinesthetic resources may be more relatable in the student’s education. By asking students to delve into their senses and encouraging them to think visually, aurally, kinesthetically, and more, teachers can enable their bilingual students both to comprehend and to create meaning that they may not have created just through words, virtually removing the barrier that language places on learning altogether (Stein 2000).

This potential for removal of linguistic barriers is great news for USAHello, given the fact that we aim to provide online support, access, and education for individuals coming from dozens of linguistic backgrounds. Given the plethora of research supporting multilingual education for optimal educational outcomes, USAHello is working towards translating our site and adding listening options for our site pages and classes in all major newcomer languages.

This would not only allow many more individuals to access the material in their native tongues, but would also incorporate the multimodal aspect of education research that has demonstrated immense educational success for non-native English speakers.


About Sarah Hakini