BILINGUALISM AND EDUCATION

The Benefits of Bilingual Learning

Hannah Reese, Ecole Kenwood French Immersion Elementary School 

About two-thirds of the people on earth are bilingual. It is common for many children around the world to learn two languages simultaneously. Yet, in the United States, bilingualism is not the norm. For families deciding if bilingual education is right for their child, they must ask some tough questions. They may be wondering, “Will learning two languages put my child behind?” and “How will it impact their future?” Researched extensively in relation to childhood development, bilingualism has been found to benefit children in long-lasting ways. Benefits of bilingualism include heightened linguistic awareness, cognitive flexibility, and improved executive functioning.

To begin, bilingualism is known to heighten linguistic awareness in children. As described by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (2016), “Learning two languages enhances children’s awareness of the different properties and structures of language. This linguistic awareness also makes learning a third language much easier” (p. 8). Bilingual children are better equipped to process the sounds of multiple languages. Additionally, learning another language alongside English does not slow their rate of English development.  At birth, a baby can differentiate between all 800 sounds of the world’s languages. A monolingual baby begins to lose this ability as they specialize in the 40 or so sounds of their native language. Meanwhile, bilingual babies become specialized in the sounds of both their native languages (Ramirez, 2016, p. 2). Therefore, a child learning two languages at once processes two distinct sets of phonemes simultaneously. In fact, “they have an extended sensitive period… Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals recognize foreign language sounds for longer” (Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, 2016, p. 7). A bilingual child’s brain becomes wired to comprehend more language sounds and structures than a monolingual child’s brain, heightening their linguistic awareness overall.

Next, bilingualism benefits children because it boosts cognitive flexibility. However, some worry that dual language learning causes confusion. According to Ramirez (2016), “Part of this concern arises due to “code-switching,” a speaking behavior in which bilinguals combine both languages.” (p. 4). For example, a child might be speaking in one language and occasionally incorporate a word from their other language. Taking a closer look at this phenomenon, researchers found that code switching is a tool that bilingual learners use to fill in any gaps they may have in one of their languages. Furthermore, this “does not mean a bilingual has a language delay or inability to keep languages apart… It is an effective strategy that bilingual children and adults use to support communication” (Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, 2016, p. 12). Cognitive flexibility develops from the way a child uses one language to compliment the other. If a bilingual child cannot think of a certain word in one language, they can substitute it with the word in their other language. Lightbown (2013) suggests, “Psychologists have shown that speakers of more than one language are constantly making choices about how to express themselves and that code switching is patterned and often predictable” (p. 31). This patterned code-switching tells us that bilingual children substitute words intentionally and not out of confusion. Additionally, cognitive flexibility is defined as “the ability to quickly switch between different tasks or rules” (Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, 2016, p. 14). A child learning two languages at once must quickly switch between both languages depending on the context or environment. They even learn to switch between sets of rules for each language. Therefore, bilingualism boosts cognitive flexibility in children.

Lastly, a benefit of bilingualism is improved executive functioning. Executive functioning includes mental skills like working memory, self-control, and problem-solving. According to Bialystok (2011), “not only do bilinguals typically perform these executive control tasks more effectively than monolinguals but they also recruit different brain networks in those performances” (p. 229-235). Because of code-switching and managing two competing languages, the bilingual brain uses more brain activity than a monolingual brain. In addition, this improved executive functioning reduces the onset of Alzheimer’s. There is a distinct correlation between activities that stimulate the mind and a delay of cognitive decline.  As the bilingual brain builds language connections, it creates a “more efficient network that supports high levels of performance” in other areas of functioning (p. 229-235). Furthermore, bilingualism benefits improved executive functioning in children which can have long-lasting positive effects on them later in life.

In conclusion, bilingual learning benefits children greatly from birth to adulthood. Starting with linguistic development, bilingual children have an advantage in acquiring language skills. During dual language learning, bilingual children gain cognitive flexibility, switching quickly between tasks and rules. Finally, bilingual children have improved executive functioning, which aids them in problem solving, memory, and self-control. Families wondering if bilingual education is right for their child can be comforted by the facts. Research shows that bilingual learning gives children excellent advantages that will positively impact their futures.

References

Bialystok, E. (2011). Reshaping the mind: The benefits of bilingualism. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale, 65(4), 229–235. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025406

Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. (2016). Module 11: Bilingual Language Development [online module]. University of Washington. https://doi.org/10.6069/hvay-an94

Lightbown, P. (2013). Language Learning in Early Childhood. How Languages Are Learned, 5-32.

Ramirez, N. F. (2016). Why the baby brain can learn two languages at the same time. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/why-the-baby-brain-can-learn-two-languages-at-the-same-time-57470

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