What does Bilingualism have to do with STEAM?

bilingual-steam-1Next month, November 12 from 12 pm – 4pm, Think Bilingual Austin, in partnership with AISD, will be hosting Austin’s first Bilingual “STEAM” event.

“STEAM” as a common acronym that refers to disciplines related to science, technology, engineering, the arts and math.  However, the word “STEAM” also refers to power and energy (like in steam engine).  When we talk about bilingual STEAM, we incorporate both meanings.  In this post we want to demonstrate how bilingualism and multiculturalism empower and energize the study and work in other disciplines. 

Much like the learning to play music enhances understanding of math concepts and other disciplines, the learning and use of a second language also strengthen cognitive abilities that both enhance and are transferable to the learning of other disciplines. Skills such as creative problem solving and the ability to analyze situations from multiple perspectives are just a few of the transferable skills that aid in the learning of other disciplines. Moreover, the daily back and forth use of more than one language (code-switching) also strengthens cognitive synapses which in turn heightens neural functioning and enhances decision making.

Here are other benefits that bilingualism and multiculturalism add to STEAM:

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DIRECT BENEFITS TO SPECIFIC DISCIPLINES.

In addition to the transferable cognitive skills, some languages may directly facilitate the learning of other disciplines, especially if those disciplines were developed or built upon by cultures with similar languages.  For example, romance languages such as Spanish can be very useful in the study of life sciences since the scientific names of plants and animals in the romance languages may closely resemble the original Latin name used in the scientific name.  In fact, last week, my seven year old daughter came across a trick question that used the scientific name for earthworm.  She immediately identified what the animal in the trick question was since she also knew the word for earthworm in Spanish. Languages like Chinese, Japanese or Turkish may also make math concepts more easily understood by young learners because these languages simplify the way numbers are organized and labeled WSJ article).

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FOSTER LONG TERM ACADEMIC SUCCESS.

When a child is encouraged by the broader community to learn and/or keep his/her native language while also learning a second language, two things happen.  One is that that child feels more accepted and respected as a full fledged member of the community rather than as an outsider.  Second, the feeling of being accepted and respected by community members correlates to academic success and an overall positive well being in the long term (a great follow-up article in the Atlantic).

When children learn a second language and learn about other cultures, they are less likely to have strong biases against people from diverse backgrounds.  Moreover, they are also more likely to understand that skills and “talents” are learned rather than inherent . In other words, children who are bilingual place higher value on the act of acquiring knowledge and skills over idea that specific traits are innate in a given population (Concordia University Study).  Not only does this framework of thinking reduce bias it also is important for long term academic achievement (Scientific American Article).

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BETTER PREPARED FOR WORKING IN AN INCREASINGLY DIVERSE AND GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT.

Almost every profession has become more diverse and many professions have become more globally oriented.  As a result, we need professionals who are not only capable in their respective fields but those who can also build community and unite people from diverse backgrounds.  Sometimes bilingualism is necessary, especially for those who are working in specific segments of the population or for those who work internationally.  However, multicultural understanding in almost every profession is now essential for long-term career success. Because people who are bilingual tend to also have a better multicultural perspective, it is no wonder why bilingual employees are more sought after and are less likely to be laid off in an economic downturn than their monolingual counterparts. (Study on Employer Preferences). 

Join us  at the Bilingual STEAM event on November 12 at Sanchez Elementary to learn more about the importance of bilingualism and multiculturalism for elementary and middle school age children and how you can support your own child’s bilingual/multicultural education.

For more reading on bilingualism and the early years, check out studies posted on academia.edu.