Bilingualism: Training For Your Brain

text and photos by Barbara Barkhausen

Speaking two or even more languagesProfessor Ingrid Piller is not only good for your HSC or later career in life. It also helps you to stay mentally healthy as research shows.


During a talk at the German International School Sydney in Terrey Hills Ingrid Piller, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University said that the ability to speak two languages made your brain stronger. “It is like brain exercise or doping for your brain.“ Children that speak two or more languages are more resilient, can multitask better and have a better attention span and memory. They are also more competent in learning further languages, as they have understood the way languages work from an early age on.


In a multicultural society like in Australia bilingualism is also an essential contributor to mental health. “If a child can’t communicate with their grandparents because they’ve never learnt the family’s heritage language, then that poses a mental health risk. Or if you can never have an adult conversation with your parents because you haven’t learnt their language and their English isn’t good enough for a difficult conversation, that’s going to make both children and parents feel isolated and disconnected,” Ingrid Piller says.


Saskia Scholle speaks German and English, a mighty advantage when playing Scrabble. Photo Credit: Barbara Barkhausen

To make bilingualism work, persistence is the recipe for success. Silvia Scholle is a perfect example for this. The German immigrant is married to an Australian and has two children – Saskia (8) and Felix (5). Despite them growing up in Australia, she still wanted them to speak and understand her mother tongue German. Therefore Silvia consistently speaks German with the children whereas her husband only speaks English. As he also understands both languages the family language is switched at times. “Sometimes the English takes over and the kids mix English words into their German or adapt the English sentence structure to their German. I try to correct them in such a case and tell them how it really should be said,” says Silvia Scholle. And it worked: Over time their German became more and more fluent. Now, the children also attend the German International School Sydney in Terrey Hills that teaches in English as well as in German. They also speak with their German relatives on Skype and read German as well as English books. Easter and Christmas are celebrated the German way and often with German friends, “but we also make sure the kids play with their friends in the neighbourhood and have some Aussie activities.” Saskia is a member of the Australian Girls’ Choir and Felix is in the local football club for example.


So far, Silvia Scholle thinks her children have only benefited from their additional language and the community involvement. Professor Ingrid Piller also views bilingualism as an opportunity for the development of children that should not be missed by parents. And the good news is: We can reap the mental and cognitive benefits of speaking another language also, if we start learning it later in life. But again, this needs persistence. “To develop proficiency in a language, you have to study it for about 200 hours per year over five years.” Australia’s education system, however, doesn’t cater for this need. Despite languages being part of the curriculum for a number of years, they are still only taught for one hour per week. Prof Piller says this doesn’t work and might even be counterproductive as children get frustrated by their inability to communicate in the language. “To become bilingual you have to immerse yourself into a language and use it all the time. Be it at home or at school,” she says. So trying your high-school French on your children or sending them off to language classes once a week, doesn’t do the trick!




  • Stick to your native language, when speaking with the children.
  • Encourage cultural and community related activities.
  • Read aloud in your language to your children and teach them how to read and write.
  • Introduce them to other children speaking the language.
  • Use different media experiences (e.g. watch foreign language DVDs).
  • Look for a bilingual school.



  • Don’t mix languages while talking to your child.
  • Don’t put pressure on your child while learning another language.


Advantages (apart from speaking several languages fluently)

  • Better mental health
  • Better multitasking skills
  • Better attention
  • Better memory
  • Better ability to learn further languages


Reading is a must for bilingual education. Silvia Scholle and her children. Saskia and Felix read in both languages. Photo Credit: Barbara Barkhausen

Reading is a must for bilingual education. Silvia Scholle and her children. Saskia and Felix read in both languages. Photo Credit: Barbara Barkhausen

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