There is little doubt that knowing more than one language carries tremendous advantages.
Young bilinguals are known to be flexible thinkers and better problem solvers. They have a competitive edge in the labor market, with those fluent in English along with another language showing higher earnings. What’s more, research shows that knowing more than one language could even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia by two to four years.
Most people have come to agree that it is necessary to know more than one language. Over 70% of respondents in a recent study conducted in Florida agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that all students should learn an additional language of their choice.
The question is, how can we support our children in learning more than one language?
I have been a bilingual educator for over 20 years. I have worked with teachers and conducted many classroom observations and program evaluations. One bilingual education model that research has shown to be particularly effective is “Two-Way Immersion,” or TWI.
How the program works
Students who are already fluent in English but want to learn another language are taught along with students who are fluent in a language other than English. These students are also in the process of learning English as a second language.
Some programs teach 50% of the time in English and 50% of the time in a partner language (eg, Spanish, Korean, Chinese). Other programs immerse all students first in the partner language and later (by fourth or fifth grade) get to a 50%-50% level in both languages.
The integration of these two groups of native language speakers (eg, English and Spanish) is one of the reasons that the program works so well. Both groups of students have the chance to practice the language they are learning not only with the teacher but also with their peers in the classroom.
Another advantage of TWI programs lies in the fact that these are part of the regular academic programs (that is, they teach the regular curriculum as prescribed under the state and district content standards). The only difference is that they teach the content through two different languages.
I have seen the benefits firsthand of this model of teaching, for both students and families. A few years ago, a colleague and I researched the experiences of the graduating class of a longstanding TWI program.
Both English and Spanish language speakers told us it had helped them understand diversity and become better at collaborating with those who come from language and cultural backgrounds other than their own.
Being able to speak both Spanish and English, they said, allowed them to work in more and more diverse communities. They anticipated it would help them with their college applications as well as in finding a future job.
The native Spanish speakers in the program added that maintaining their Spanish skills helped maintain the connection not only with their immediate families in the US but also in their home country and with their communities.
What is the evidence?
Our observations are also supported by research.
Students who are enrolled in TWI programs consistently outperform similar students in regular education programs. TWI students score higher on standardized tests in both reading and math.
One study in California showed that while the state average score was around the 50th percentile in reading and math, TWI English proficient students scored around the 71th percentile in reading and math.
The difference for students still learning English was even more pronounced: English learners scored at the 50th percentile in seventh grade in math and reading whereas their peers scored below the 10th percentile.
This pattern has been noted for students who are still in the process of learning English and for students from higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as for students with disabilities.
A recent study in North Carolina again supported the general positive achievement outcomes for TWI for different groups of students. The study also closely looked at African-American students enrolled in the program and found that these TWI students were one to two years ahead of their non-TWI peers in mathematics.
Not surprisingly, other states than North Carolina are looking to these and similar programs to support the achievement of all students. New York City opened over 40 dual language schools recently. And Utah passed a mandate for dual language education, including both foreign language programs and programs for students still learning English.
The reasons for success
So, what is it about the program that makes it so effective?
Academic achievement is enhanced because the curriculum is taught in and through both languages. Students are encouraged to operate at their highest cognitive level, regardless of their language ability.
So, even if you don’t happen to be fluent in the language of instruction (eg, English), you will still receive challenging, grade-level appropriate instruction through your native language.
Moreover, as these second language learners always get to work with multiple role models – the teacher, their more fluent peers, as well as the other second language learners – they are better supported.
The fact that both languages are used for teaching language arts, math, science and so forth also elevates the status of the partner language as a legitimate language for learning. For students whose language at home is not English, this is an important validation of their home culture and languages.
Also, as teachers use the language to teach other subjects such as math or science, students learn to use the language for real purposes, and don’t relate to it just as a set of grammar rules.
The most important aspect of this learning is that each student plays a role in helping other learn the target language while learning themselves.
Through cooperative learning, teachers help TWI students build strong intergroup relationships and create opportunities for students to practice the language. TWI students thus develop an ability to work with students from diverse backgrounds, a prerequisite for today’s workforce.
Given the benefits of dual language education, and two-way immersion programs in particular, one has to wonder why more states are not incorporating these programs.
Just as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is part of college and workforce readiness, shouldn’t the ability to use English and a language other than English be considered a must-have for all our students?
English Translation Below:
Por Erica Mirochnik, Creadora de Mamás por el mundo
Una de las preguntas más frecuentes que les hacen a mis hijos, y a muchos otros niños también es “¿de dónde eres?”
Para la mayoría de los niños esto es algo sencillo de responder. Para los míos es algo más complejo.
La respuesta más común a esta pregunta es que somos del lugar donde nacimos. En el caso de muchas familias como la mía, mis hijos han nacido en un país que no es el de sus padres y en el que tampoco viven en este momento.
Entonces la respuesta se vuelve algo más larga que decir “soy de…” Comienza una larga serie de explicaciones en las que cuentan que sus padres se han mudado varias veces, que ellos han nacido en uno de esos tantos lugares de residencia pero que ya hace un tiempo que no viven allí.
La versión de respuesta corta es decir que son del país de los padres, cosa que muchos mencionan para evitar dar tantos detalles de su vida y la de su familia.
Para muchas familias es prácticamente impensable la idea de haberte ido a vivir lejos de tu lugar de origen. Sin ir más lejos, hasta hace no mucho tiempo, la gente pasaba su vida entera sin moverse de su ciudad o de su pueblo.
Esto hace que comunicarse con gente en otras latitudes sea el primer desafío que enfrentan estas familias que se han mudado. Y no es sólo una cuestión de cuán bien sabes el idioma local, lo importante es pensar como comunicas con quienes te rodean. Pensar si utilizas el segundo idioma meramente para trabajo y cuestiones prácticas o si has podido establecer vínculos que te permiten compartir algo más íntimo de tu vida con tu nuevo entorno.
En los niños sucede de una forma más natural, ya que a través del juego que es un lenguaje en el que se sienten muy cómodos, los niños pueden expresarse de diferentes formas, pero sobretodo utilizan el segundo idioma para interactuar de manera natural.
Los adultos tenemos nuestros propios obstáculos al respecto, a veces reales y a veces auto–impuestos. Creemos que no sabemos lo suficiente o que tenemos un acento muy fuerte, y nos limitamos la capacidad de interactuar. Buscamos muchas excusas por diferentes razones y así nos privamos de uno de los mayores beneficios que tiene vivir en otro país que es conocer la cultura y la gente del lugar.
Entonces volviendo a “¿de dónde eres?”, creo que es importante manifestar tu origen de diferentes maneras y a través de una segunda lengua abrirte a un mundo de posibilidades donde no solo te beneficias tu, sino tu interlocutor.
Cuando un niño cuenta que ha nacido en otra ciudad genera curiosidad, y cuando un adulto lo cuenta puede generar un diálogo interesante.
En ese momento lo que importa es de dónde vienes y a dónde has llegado, más allá de tus motivos. Estas aquí y ahora con todo tu bagaje, es el equipaje que ha venido contigo y del que debes estar orgulloso para poder compartirlo.
“Where are you from?”
By Erica Mirochnik, Creator of Mamás por el mundo
One of the most frequently asked questions that my children, and many other children are asked is “Where are you from?”
For most children this is something simple to answer. For mine it is more complex.
The most common answer to such a question is that they are from the place where they were born. For international and expatriate families like mine, our children were born in a country that is neither where their parents are from nor the country where they currently live.
Then the answer becomes somewhat longer to say “I’m from …” and thus begins a long series of explanations which explains that their parents have moved several times, that they were born in one of those many places of residence, and that it has been a long time since they lived there.
A shorter version of the answer is that they are from the country of their parents, which is commonly used so as to avoid giving many personal and family details.
For much of society, it is an unthinkable idea to live far from your place of origin. Without going any further, until not long ago, people spent their entire lives without leaving their town or village.
This makes communicating with people in other latitudes the first challenge faced by these families who have moved. And it is not only a question of how well you know the local language but also how well you are able to communicate with those around you. Think about if you use the second language merely for work and for answering practical questions or if you have also been able to establish language connections that allow you to share more intimate details of your life with those in your new environment.
For children language learning happens more naturally, because already like learning a game, a new language will feel very comfortable. Children can express themselves in different ways, but more than anything, children learn to interact in the second language more naturally.
As adults, we encounter our own obstacles, sometimes real and sometimes self – imposed. Either, we do not know enough or we have a very strong accent, and we limit our ability to interact. We look for many excuses for different reasons, and by doing so, we deprive ourselves of one of the greatest benefits that come from living in another country– that is the culture and the locals.
Now back to “where are you from ?” I think it’s important to deliver your origin in a variety of ways; and through the use of your second language you can begin to open up a world of possibilities where you not only benefit but also the person to whom you speak benefits.
Curiosity is generated when one learns that a child is born in another city; and when an adult shares this with others, interesting dialogue can develop.
And at that moment, what becomes important is where you come from and where have you arrived, more than motives. You are here with all of your baggage, it is it the luggage that has come with you and you should be proud to share it with others.
We use the same vocabulary over and over again with our children through the practice of daily routines such as eating, brushing teeth, and bed time. This constant repetition of vocabulary with routine concepts make daily routines a perfect format for introducing language learning.
Reto Bilingüe and Mama Lingua have joined forces to provide online content to help families learn language through daily routines in English and Spanish. Below are links on how you can introduce Spanish in your daily life.
Usamos el mismo vocabulario en repetición por la participación en actividades rutinas en nuestra vida (como comer la cena, lavar los dientes y dormir en la cama). Esta repetición constante de vocabulario que corresponde a conceptos comunes es lo que hace el uso de este vocabulario un buen formato para introducir un nuevo idioma.
Reto Bilingüe y Mama Lingua colaboran para proveer contenido online para ayudar a las familias aprender inglés/español por hacer las rutinas cotidianas. Abajo son links para dar modos para introducir inglés en tu vida cotidiana.
Note: This is guest post by Aileen Passariello-McAleer, co-founder of MamaLingua. This post was first featured on MomRising Blog for #bilingualrisers campaign.
I was raised in a Spanish-speaking household. Although I heard Spanish throughout my childhood, I rarely responded in Spanish. I didn’t know how important my language was to me until I got pregnant and decided that I wanted to raise bilingual/bicultural children. I really didn’t think about it in those terms; I just remember telling my husband that I wanted our son to feel connected to my heritage. But it was more than that. I wanted him to understand that the world is not limited to the one that surrounds us day to day, but that there is a world beyond our borders – in different countries, with different customs, and different languages. By learning Spanish, more of that world would be available to him, and he could know it on a more intimate level. I didn’t want my child to live in a cultural bubble; I wanted him to see the world how I saw it.
I didn’t know the challenge I would be facing when my son was born. I remember calling my mom and asking her about basic vocabulary for things around the house, as I narrated to my son. I forced myself to speak only Spanish to my parents to enhance my fluency and recall, and I implemented a Spanish-only policy at home – except when it was just me and my husband.
Raising bilingual children in a monolingual environment is challenging. At one point, my son refused to speak in Spanish. Returning home from school one day he asked, “Everyone in the world speaks English. Why do we need to speak Spanish?” It was at that point that I knew I had two choices: I could allow him to believe that, or I could show him the reality. That night, I told my English-speaking husband what our son had said. The next morning, as we sat down for breakfast, my husband, with his limited Spanish skills, turned to our son and asked “¿Quieres una servilleta?” [Do you want a napkin?] It was at that very moment that my son understood he had something his dad didn’t have – something his dad wanted. While his dad struggled with the language, our son realized he could easily communicate in Spanish. I saw him smile as he answered, “¡Si!” [Yes!]
Over the past six years, my Spanish has improved tremendously. My children are bilingual, and one shocking result: so is my husband! My husband has been immersed in Spanish since our son was born. In the house, he hears Spanish being spoken every day and in context. If he ever needs translation, my children usually communicate for me, and he has never complained. Instead, he has embraced our bilingual home and has begun to incorporate more Spanish into our daily routines with our kiddos.
My son has also grown very proud of his ability and always points out when someone is speaking Spanish. I do my best to reinforce his interest. Whenever I interact with someone in Spanish, I always follow up afterward by saying to him, “Wasn’t it nice that we were able to talk to that person in Spanish?”
Sometimes kids will challenge and fight you for things that you want them to embrace. At those times, you have to let them know that you understand their frustration. However, it’s also important to communicate the “why” behind your desire for them to learn, and as I’ve learned, to show them the “why.”
Next year my son will be attending a dual language public school where not only his instruction will be in Spanish but half of the student population will be Spanish speaking dominant as well. This move was very important to us because we didn’t want him to grow up in isolation of the reality of our world. I also believe that in this environment, he will embrace his ability to speak two languages and be able to help students on both sides, those learning English and those learning Spanish.
I’m very proud of my bilingual/bicultural family. It’s taken a lot of hard work and consistency, but I can see the impact it has had on my children. My son knows about Venezuela, where my mom is from; Italy, where his Nonno is from; Mexico, where his cousins live; and if you ask him, he’ll tell you he speaks English, Spanish and Italian.
My daughter is still very young, but Spanish is her language of love. When she meets someone who speaks Spanish, she quickly embraces them in a hug, because for her, Spanish speakers are familia. This summer, we’re taking our bilingual family to Mexico and immersing them in a different bubble – one where Spanish is spoken all around them. I’m excited to see them grow in this experience.
Aileen Passariello-McAleer’s determination to raise a bilingual and bicultural family led her to her mission: to help parents learn basic Spanish or English alongside their child. As a result, she created an app for parents, MamaLingua, organized by daily activities and routines so that parents can begin implementing Spanish or English phrases throughout their day. The App is currently on sale for the at a reduced price of $1.99. It can be found in the App Store or in Google Play.
Exposure to multiple languages may sharpen infants’ music sensitivity in the first year after birth, new research has found.
To understand whether such sensitivity is specific to language in nature, we further tested monolingual and bilingual infants’ sensitivity to music pitch.
Results showed that infants growing up in bilingual environments are more able to distinguish between two violin notes than their monolingual counterparts.
These findings suggest heightened acoustic sensitivity for bilingual infants. That is, infants’ multilingual experiences may make them better at detecting the small differences in sounds in the ambient environment than monolinguals, whether the sounds are coming from language or music.
It has been shown that speaking a tone language like Chinese will facilitate music perception probably due to the extensive usage of pitch on words in that language. The current research suggests that bilingual experience may yield a similar effect.
Sensitivity to sounds
When a child learns two different languages, they form a more complex, detailed system, with overlapping sounds enabling better comprehension of acoustics in general.
These infants may benefit from their experience of detecting and distinguishing subtle differences between two languages, and transfer this ability to non-speech sound perception, like music.
Infants may also pay more attention to input acoustic details than monolinguals, with the constant switching between languages serving as a frequent exercise for the ears and the brain.
Benefits of bilingualism
The effect of bilingualism is not restricted to the language domain. When bilinguals talk, all languages they know are activated by the brain.
A bilingual’s brain is constantly working on this language suppression and activation process.
Many scholars argue that bilinguals have better cognitive abilities such as executive control. This practice generates life-long cognitive benefits, and makes bilinguals think more adaptively, abstractly, and creatively.
- Ability to attend to, identify and detect new information
- Ability to suppress the initially learned rules and switch to new rules, responses, targets
- Degree of brain plasticity, showing neural sensitivity when encountering sounds from a non-native language
- Discrimination or recognition between languages
- Learning of two speech structures simultaneously
- Interpretation of speakers’ intended meaning
- Sensitivity to visual cues in language
- Social communication skills
- Working memory capacity
and many more
Are there any drawbacks?
Regardless of anecdotes claiming that children growing up bilingually will have a slower developmental trajectory than monolinguals, researchers have found that bilingual children have the ability to separate their two languages early on, and that their pace of language development is not different from monolingual children given adequate exposure.
Whether it is learning a new language, picking up a language you used to speak, or raising your child bilingually, becoming bilingual may change your perception, cognition, learning and even brain structures.
This post was submitted by contributor: Vanessa Fardi / NEUVOO, Team Leader US/CA/LATAM, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Having bilingual employees in the workforce can only bring benefits to the company. Studies have shown that bilingual people are good at multitasking and have excellent communication skills. Any company looking to expand or to have global reach should have at least 5 bilingual employees on their payroll. The most common language combination nowadays is English/Spanish. However, Chinese, German and French are languages also being sought after by recruiters. So if you are a job seeker, start looking for the best language school in your neighborhood, and if you are a recruiter or a company owner and you are not yet convinced bilinguals will eventually rule the world, here is a small list of the advantages of hiring bilingual candidates:
- International reach. Bilingual employees not only know how to speak the language, but, in most cases, they also have knowledge about their native country’s culture, which is always an advantage when dealing with international clients.
- Translation made easy. Having a bilingual employee makes using localization services a breeze. The staff member could be in charge of proof reading the translation of the content of the website and can assess the localization process. He or she can also adapt the information for what is more suitable in the different regions.
- Multitasking. A recent study showed that bilinguals can switch between tasks a lot quicker than people who know only one language. Researchers found that people who spoke several languages could process information faster and more efficiently than monolinguals.
What are you waiting for? It’s time to hire a whole lot of bilingual employees! Make sure to use a bilingual recruiter who can test their skills and that will be able to make a decision based on the candidate’s skills. Languages are the future, what do you have to lose?
Human Capital Investment:
Employees who speak more than one language are becoming increasingly important in our workforce. A recent report by New American Economy shows that the demand for bilingual jobs posted on online search engines have more than doubled over the past 5 years. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that Translators and Interpreters will be one of the fastest growing professions in the next several years, with an anticipated 42% growth in the private sector alone. From a study conducted by Northern Illinois University Center for Government Studies in August, 2015, one third of the businesses surveyed were seeking bilingual employees whereas within the next five years, at least half of those businesses are expected to do so.
The majority of businesses surveyed reported that bilingual skills were:
- critical for success (Korn/Kerry International Executive Recruiter Index, 2005);
- important for customer satisfaction and retention,
- improved business competitiveness
- enabled businesses to engage with new suppliers and conduct business in other countries. (Study by Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies, August 2015).
Drivers in Demand for Bilinguals in the Workforce:
The key factor in the increase demand for bilinguals in the workforce is primarily the human factor — human engagement and interaction that cannot be automated by machines. The need for high quality human interaction and engagement is important in all levels of business and across industries, especially where high levels of interaction is required across diverse groups of people. Why bilinguals over monolinguals? Bilinguals provide a more enriched level of engagement with others from diverse backgrounds than can monolinguals. To better understand this, we have identified three key drivers for the growing demand for bilinguals in the workforce:
- Growing Immigrant Population
- Global Economy
- Cognitive and Social Benefits
These driving forces are not necessarily mutually exclusive; but rather overlap and intersect in multiple facets.
Growing Immigrant Population:
Today, more than one fifth of the families in the United States speaks another language other than English at home. The majority of those families (13% of U.S. population) speaks Spanish. However, Mandarin, French, Vietnamese, Arabic and many other languages are also commonly spoken. In Texas, more than one third of households speak a language other than English, with more than 80% of those families speaking Spanish.
Consequently, the majority of the online job posts for bilinguals often tend to be where the majority of families whose primary language is something other than English live. To give an example of this, below is the U.S. Census Data for where Spanish speakers live in the United States and the data by state for online job posts for bilinguals (NEA report). You can see from the data below that the majority of bilingual online job posts are located in states with a larger concentration of Spanish speakers.
The demand for bilingual jobs to serve families whose primary language is other than English are found in a large cross section of industries and across all skill levels. Predominant industries that seek bilinguals include:
- Demand for teachers is to increase by 13% through 2018, demand bilingual teachers to increase at even a faster rate (Geteducated.com)
- Demand in foreign language skills, especially Spanish, is a top trend in hiring legal staff & law enforcement agencies. “Foreign Language Skills See High Demand in Legal Market” by Charles A Volkert at Robert Half, Job Recruitment agency.
- Patient care and outcome is directly proportional to ability of medical staff and patient to communicate.
- The highest number of online job postings for bilinguals are now in this sector per the NEA Report.
- Minority groups are high consumers smart phones and serving this population requires staff with bilingual skills per the NEA Report.
- Call Centers
- Up to 20% of staff are bilingual, Society for Human Resources Management
- Social Services
While job demand for bilinguals is increasing across all skill levels, the fastest growing demand is in the those jobs that require a higher skill level. Please see below from the NEA Report:
The Global Economy:
Global integration across industries and supply chains has increased the demand for a bilingual and multicultural workforce who can work well with others from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Consequently, Spanish has grown to become an important language in global trade since it is a language that covers a significant global territory, including some of our most important trading partners. For example, enrollment in a popular Spanish language learning program, the Instituto Cervantes, located in 87 cities worldwide, quadrupled between 2003 and 2013. Notwithstanding, China has also become more aggressive in encouraging Spanish as a second language as China continues to expand its influence in foreign investment and capital in Europe and the Americas (Per the Chinese National Coordinator for Spanish, Lu Jingsheng, at the Foro Internacional del Español, 2015 and China’s Investment in Latin America, David Dollar from Foreign Policy at Brookings).
Spanish is not the only language business and industry leaders are learning. Many articles have been written highlighting the value of learning Mandarin, French, German and Arabic for success in the global economy.
How Many Foreign Languages Do Executives Speak? An interesting website based survey conducted by Korn/Ferry International, an Executive Recruitment Firm based in LA revealed that a significant number of executives speak at least least more than one language.
- 36% – One language
- 31% – Two languages
- 20% – Three languages
- 9% – Four languages
- 4% – More than five languages
- (64% of the 12,562 Executives who responded to the website survey spoke two or more languages)
Cognitive and Social Advantages:
Much has been written on the cognitive and social advantages of being bilingual. Balanced bilinguals (those who speak more than one language daily and do so in a variety of contexts) demonstrate an advantage in the development of important and highly valued transferable cognitive skills due to the consistent exercising of the brain through code switching between languages. These transferable cognitive skills include: cognitive load management, problem solving, sense making, creative thinking, and adaptability. (See below for a list of supporting studies). They are also the same skills considered to be some of the most important skills needed for our future work force because these skills are essential to success in variety of highly skilled disciplines, such as science, technology, and engineering.
Yet, equally, if not more, important are the essential social skills that bilinguals possess. Studies reveal that children who are repeatedly exposed to other languages, even if they are not proficient in the other languages, are better at understanding multiple perspectives.
Those who grow up speaking more than one language and whose languages are valued by others have a greater positive self identity, can relate more positively to others from different cultures and are more likely to pursue higher education (Rebecca Callahan, Assistant Professor of Bilingual Education at U T at Austin, Presentation at Bilingual STEAM event. Such positive self identity and ability to relate to others are necessary skills for continued self development as well as effective collaboration, communication and negotiation. Essentially, these skills are the most fundamental skills needed for any job that requires human interaction, which is a key reason why bilinguals (even if they do not use their second language in their profession) are valuable employees.
As employers continue to reap the benefits that bilingual employees bestow, the demand for bilinguals in the workforce will continue to grow. Currently, bilinguals already receive an increase pay differential that varies from 2 – 20%, depending on the level of skills and language required ((Study by Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies, August 2015). Furthermore, research reveals that bilinguals are less likely to be let go by their employers than are their monolingual counterparts during economic downturns (Callahan, R. & Gándara, The Bilingual Advantage: Language, Literacy, and the U.S. Labor Market.).
Society must realize the value that speaking multiple languages bestow, not only in the workforce but in society in general, and in doing so continue to promote language learning and cultural understanding. How? Educational institutions can foster strong multilingual skills at the prime age for language acquisition through:
- preschool language enrichment programs,
- effective dual language programs–beginning in elementary and on through high school so that children leave high school as balanced bi-literate bilinguals,
- language enrichment programs for children of immigrant families whose language is other than English
- programs that encourage cross cultural exchanges and greater appreciation for our country’s ethnic and cultural diversity.
- bilingual enrichment programs in the arts and in STEM related activities.
Community leaders and business leaders can sponsor more programs for community engagement that highlight the value of linguistic and cultural diversity while also fostering cross cultural experiences that serve to unite people. Leaders can help provide parents with the resources they need to foster strong linguistic skills in more than one language and facilitate smaller scaled programs for meaningful active linguistic engagement. They can also put pressure on educational institutions and other service providers to ensure that native and non-native linguistic skills, along with cultural appreciation for our country’s diversity, are supported for all children from all backgrounds.
Policy makers can continue to enact laws and programs that encourage second language instruction and cross cultural appreciation. Twenty-three states offer, (and more are underway), students a Seal of Biliteracy. The Seal of Biliteracy is awarded to students from specific schools or districts who have demonstrated a level of proficiency in more than one language. Another example is the recently passed Texas law, SB 671, which provides a high school credit to students who have graduated from a TEA compliant Dual Language elementary schools. This law also includes provisions for more high school credit hours and college credit for those children who speak the second language and who continue taking classes in the second language throughout middle school. Policies like these are first steps, but many more are required to help build our country’s linguistic skills and cross-cultural connections so that we as a larger community with engaged citizens and employees, have the skills necessary to unite us and lead us forward in the 21st century.
Most importantly, parents must work together to demand educational and enrichment programs to support their children’s bilingual and multicultural education. Parents are key drivers for policy changes and implementation across all sectors of government and educational institutions. Parents make their voices heard by choosing dual language schools, supporting language enrichment programs, raising funds to support language and cross cultural education and holding policy and community leaders accountable to providing such educational programs.
Noteworthy studies that demonstrate important cognitive and social skill advantages:
Dr Máire Ní Ríordáin, Mathematics and Gaeilge: A Report on the Influence of Bilingualism, May 2011. Ellen Bialystok and Shilpi Majumder, The relationship between bilingualism and the development of cognitive processes in problem solving, January 1998. Hwajin Yang, Sujin Yang, Stephen J. Ceci, and Qi Wang, Effects of Bilinguals’ Controlled-Attention on Working Memory and Recognition, Cornell University 2005. Heather McLeay, The Relationship Between Bilingualism and the Performance of Spatial Tasks, 26 Mar 2010. Kessler, C., & Quinn, M. E., Positive effects of bilingualism on Science problem solving abilities, 1980.
Ben-Zeev, S., The influence of bilingualism on cognitive strategy and cognitive development. 1977. Demont, E., Contribution of early 2nd-language learning to development of linguistic awareness and learning to read, 2001. Landry, R. G., The enhancement of figural creativity through second language learning at the elementary school level, 1973. Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, Sun Gyu An, The Foreign-Language Effect, Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases, April 18, 2012. Viorica Marian, Anthony Shook, and Scott R. Schroeder, Bilingual Two-Way Immersion Programs Benefit Academic Achievement, Sept. 5, 2013. Krista Byers-Heinlein and Bianca Garcia, Bilingualism Changes Children’s Beliefs about what is Innate, 2015. Morgan, C. ‘Attitude change and foreign language culture learning’ in Language Teaching, 1993. Samantha P. Fan, Zoe Liberman, Boaz Keysar, Katherine D. Kinzler, The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication, May 8, 2015. Jonathan W Pesner, Frank Auld, The relationship between bilingual proficiency and self-esteem, 1980.
Think back to when you first started learning a foreign language. For many readers it was probably French, German or Spanish at school.
I was one of those considered lucky enough to be “good at languages” and I studied all three. Like me though, I imagine you can remember friends who froze at the thought of speaking a second language in class.
The psychologist Albert Bandura called this “social persuasion” – I just call it fear of being shown up in front of your mates. Teachers often define this in terms of “having (or not having) a gift” – student A is good at languages but student B just isn’t.
But there is another argument: that actually language learning has nothing to do with natural aptitude, and much more to do with other factors – such as your learning environment and exposure to language.
Noam Chomsky introduced a controversial idea about learning languages in the 1960s – known as the “language acquisition device”. He suggested that children have an inbuilt universal grammar that enables them to learn any language. In short, learning a first language is easy because you are programmed from birth to be able to do it.
But this concept is a bone of contention among many researchers, because there are logical reasons to disagree with Chomsky’s ideas as he presented them.
The linguist Yukio Otsu for example, made the valid point that the “language acquisition device” did not seem adaptable to different dialects and accents.
Other research has questioned why some people learn languages slower than others. Because if Chomsky’s device existed, then it should – theoretically – automatically activate at the same rate for every learner.
However, a recent study at Florida Atlantic University seems to imply that
Chomsky’s device may indeed exist – albeit one that behaves in a slightly different way.
The researchers were looking at the learning of vocabulary and grammar among students who spoke both English and Spanish as first languages. They found that the children developed a separate set of “tools” to cope with each language they learned.
The study was carried out with children in US schools, where both English and Spanish are spoken widely. The researchers found that as the childrens’ English got better – due to being in a largely English speaking environment – their Spanish got steadily worse.
What this means in real terms, is that the students do not just have one “grammar” – or one universal set of rules that covers every language they learn. Because if the children were using the same “rules” or “resources” for learning both languages, the decline in Spanish wouldn’t have happened. Instead, these students were able to create new grammars – or new tools – each one very different.
These findings are interesting because they hint at the brain being able to develop limitless sets of resources – each one unique to the additional language you learn – whether it’s your first, second or even 20th language.
The team that carried out the study suggest that this barrier might be more environmental – based on language exposure – and so not linked to the brain at all.
Put that way, the suggestion that we already have the resources to learn as many languages as we like is possibly a game changer. This is because it could potentially create conditions for everyone – regardless of age or level – to master multiple languages at once.
But while this new study shows the quality of a language learner’s “input” to be key, this is not a major discovery in itself. The linguist and educational researcher Stephen Krashen has spent years arguing this to be the case.
The quality of “input” or the language exposure students receive is clearly a big factor in the learning of new languages. But how input is delivered could also be just as important. And this can be seen in the changing way students learn languages, both inside and outside the classroom.
We live in a digital world, where our students seem to be more and more inclined to try learning online. And this move towards online learning seems to be getting popular.
Studies have shown how different learners are in a virtual space. They take more risks with language and they appear to be less hesitant to participate. New communities develop in online spaces where students seem comfortable to share ideas, build networks and develop their knowledge together.
The increased use of virtual space means some students are starting to find their identity online. Suddenly, they are exploring their potential without fear of making mistakes.
Take away the fear factor in learning a language, and the possibilities are endless. And it could even mean that being multilingual becomes the norm rather than the exception.
Raising a child brings amazing rewards as well as tremendous anxiety. Parents can easily feel overwhelmed with the bombardment of high-stakes competitiveness in education and sports while having access to fewer traditional safety nets such as external family support to help with the burden of childcare. Immigrant families are likely to experience an even higher level of anxiety as they try to ensure that their children assimilate and learn the dominant language while also providing for their family and raising their children. For both immigrant and nonimmigrant families, thoughts on how to incorporate bilingualism in their children’s early development can easily be fraught with many fears based on unfounded myths. These myths include:
- Fear that their child’s English (or dominant language) will be stunted or delayed;
- Fear that their child will be confused by having more than one language;
- Fear that introducing a second language will delay language development.
Despite many studies refuting each of these fears, they still persist simply because they appeal to what we as adults think of when we think of language learning. However, young children are not miniature adults and do not follow the same learning curve as adults. Nor are they empty vessels waiting to be filled. Babies and young children are biologically primed to be extremely receptive to language input as a key mode of communication and as a result they can easily distinguish between different languages and sounds. Studies show that babies as young as seven months old are able to distinguish between phonetic differences, pitch and duration in different languages. (1) This ability for quick language acquisition is a a biological evolutionary trait since young children have to quickly learn how to communicate with their caregivers to meet their needs. Likewise, adult caregivers naturally and automatically communicate through what is referred to as “baby talk.” “Baby talk” occurs in all languages and is defined by how adults naturally talk to babies and young children in ways that provide better articulation of language, a more varied pitch, repetition, slower annunciation, and more expression. (2)
The use of multiple languages does not hamper language development or delay it in any way. In fact, multilingualism is the norm for most of the world’s population and language development in children continue in a natural progression irrespective of the number of languages being learnt. However, every child’s language development is different and varies according to biological make-up, the amount of external stimulation he receives and his natural developmental curve. For this reason professionals discourage comparing one child to another but instead focus on general trends in the natural progression of a child’s development. While adding a second or third language may change the mix of language focus by adding more syntax rules and phonetics to master, it does not delay the learning of language; but rather strengthens it.
It is true that children may mix languages as they continue to acquire mastery of the languages. This is a very normal part of language development and it is also very temporary. It does not mean that the children learning multiple languages are confused by the different languages, but rather that they are working out the logistical differences between the two (or more) languages; thereby making code switching between the two easier as mastery of the languages is achieved. As language development progresses, a child will able to communicate in any one of the languages at a time depending on with whom he or she is speaking to and what language is being spoken. On the other hand, mixing both languages is common when both parties speak both languages. The ability to speak both languages and to mix them interchangeably enhance effective and creative modes of communication between parties. It does not represent regression or deficiencies in language development, but rather an advanced form of self expression and communication.
How can parents support language acquisition?
- Be patient and remember that language learning is not something that happens immediately. Observe your child without intervening and ask yourself what he or she needs to feel comfortable in communicating in both languages. What a child needs varies and greatly depends on personality and family circumstances. For example, a Mexican family living in Austin shared with me their experience regarding their daughter who was learning English at school. In their home, they only spoke Spanish but at school their daughter was learning English. When the daughter came home from school, she began to feel very anxious about her language development in English. Once the parents gave her permission to speak in English at home and demonstrate that they as a family could be relaxed at speaking both languages, the daughter’s anxiety went away. After a short time adjusting to English to help their daughter over this hump of acquiring a new language and to feel more comfortable switching between the two, the family transitioned back to Spanish as the language for their home. Just knowing that her parents were supportive of her speaking both languages was what she needed to help her over the hurdle to master her second language.
- Establish a strong connection to the mother tongue/s. Parents have an important opportunity to impart the language/s they feel most comfortable with to their children. Whether it be Spanish, English, Mandarin or any other language, communicating to your child in a language that allow you as a parent to express yourself more fully helps develop important relationship bonds between child and parents and important language skills by the child. By establishing a strong connection to the mother language/s, a child is able to develop a broader and more complex understanding of the language/s along with more depth and better understanding of nuances within the language/s. This deeper understanding of a given language can then be easily transferred to the learning of other languages. However, if a parent is afraid of speaking to their child in a language that is most natural to him or her for fear of introducing a language that is not the dominant language, then he or she can actually make it more difficult for that child to learn the dominant language by not fostering that important foundation in communication through language and relationship bonding.
Establish A Strong Connection with The Mother Tongue/s:
- Take time to read together books in your language. Find books that your child find interesting. For young children, find books with beautiful images and colors and shorter texts. Talk about the story afterwards and ask your child engaging questions.
- Sing songs together. Children love to sing and singing is one of the most effective ways for people of all ages to learn language.
- Play fun games together such as memory games, strategy games where you talk about your strategies and other fun games that encourage language communication.
- Share stories with your child. Children love to hear stories about when you were younger. Use these stories as a way to connect with your child and engage in rich language learning.
- Ask your child to share stories with you. Encourage imaginative story telling prompted by images, toys or situations that appeal to your child. Be engaged and listen to your child while helping your child practice communicating in your mother tongue.
- Share adventures and experiences and then reflect on those experiences afterwards. Simply going to the park, participating in family or community events, and visiting a local museum can create shared experiences and new adventures for you and your child. Talk about these adventures in the moment and then reflect on them with your child afterwards.
Adding a Second/Third Language:
Some parents rely on nannies, daycare or preschool to provide their child with access to a second language. However, parents can facilitate language learning in another language even if it is not their primary language. Here is how:
- Introducing a language through basic daily routines such as meal time and bath time is a great way to develop new language skills while not sacrificing the richness of language acquisition from the mother tongue. Routines provide a great context to demonstrate that there are multiple ways of saying the same thing and adds richness to vocabulary and context.
- Reading bilingual books together increases language awareness and vocabulary in both languages.
- Singing songs in the second language in addition to the mother tongue is important for positive association for the language and for language development itself.
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