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Why all our children should be raised bilingual

“It can have a profound effect …,” science writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee explained, “improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.”

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently took heat for suggesting that all Puerto Rican children learn English, but learning two languages could benefit all children in the United States.

Last week, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum got into trouble for stating that Puerto Rico needed to adopt English as its main language if it wanted to be considered for statehood.

Later, he backtracked a bit, perhaps after someone informed him that both English and Spanish were the Caribbean island’s official languages.

“What I want,” he said in a “clarification” statement released by his campaign late in the week, “is for every child in Puerto Rico to speak English fluently, in addition to Spanish of course.”

Well, Santorum is right to want Puerto Rican children to be bilingual. But he shouldn’t be stopping there. Santorum should be advocating for all kids — including those living in the current 50 U.S. states — to be raised speaking two languages.

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For, as Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, a staff writer at Science magazine, pointed out Saturday in the New York Times, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that being raised bilingual “makes you smarter.”

“It can have a profound effect on your brain,” Bhattacharjee explained, “improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.”

People who are bilingual, for instance,

seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle.

In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.

The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

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And then there’s the protection bilingualism may give the aging brain:

In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.

Writing in Science magazine a couple of years ago, scientist and Pulitzer-prize-winning author (“Guns, Germs and Steel”) Jared Diamond noted that the neural enhancements associated with multi-lingualism may help individuals become better at “negotiating our confusing world of changing rules.”

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And negotiating a confusing and changing world seems to be something Santorum needs some help with. Despite his proud proclamation that his pro-Puerto Rico votes during his Senate years had earned him the nickname “Senator Puertorriqueno,” Santorum lost all 20 of Puerto Rico’s Republican delegates to Mitt Romney on Sunday.