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Researchers: bilingual brain doesn't switch, languages are always on

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Since I’ve moved away from my Spanish-speaking relatives in San Diego and Tijuana, I’ve wondered if my Spanish switch is turned off as I go days without speaking a word of my native tongue.

Penn State researchers now believe there’s no such switch - that the multiple languages in fluent bilinguals are always “on” so to speak.  An article in Psych Central details how the brain’s hard wiring in fluent bilingual people creates stronger mental flexibility. Languages seem to be functioning in parallel, regardless of whether the language was used seconds earlier or days ago.

These findings are wind in the sails of a bilingual movement that’s led to a growth of schools offering dual language curriculum in California. (Read more in KPCC's in-depth series, Bilingual Learning.)

Until recent years, policymakers have done more to discourage bilingualism than nurture it.

Some Spanish-speaking senior citizens still remember being punished by teachers for speaking Spanish in Los Angeles schools decades ago.

In 1998 California voters passed a measure to do away with bilingual education in the state and fast-track kids into English instruction, despite education research that recommends a more gradual transition to instruction in a second language.

Yet Southern California has been multilingual since the 18th century, when black, Indian, and Spanish explorers left what’s now Sonora and Sinaloa in the 18th century and arrived in this flood plain populated by Tongva and other indigenous peoples.