Research has unequivocally shown that being bilingual – speaking two languages – is an asset. The benefits of bilingualism start early on in life, and by early, I mean really early! For instance, by the age of only 7 months, bilingual infants have better attention and conflict management compared to monolingual infants.
The benefits of being bilingual have also been found in the areas of memory, attention, analytic ability, cognitive flexibility, learning new words, as well as understanding the structure and use of language. Interestingly, the benefits of being bilingual continue well into the later years of life such that it prevents cognitive degeneration.
Bilingualism & Education
In the past, it was commonly believed that in order for bilingual children to achieve academically in English, they should prioritise learning English over their native language. However, recent scientific evidence has now shown just the opposite!
Did you know that children who continue learning concepts in their native language while they study in English at school, actually perform better academically in English compared to children who only learn in English?! These research findings are fascinating, and contrary to the common beliefs and concerns of parents, which is why I have chosen to post on this topic.
Common Concerns Parents Have
Once a bilingual child reaches the age to start school, parents are faced with some confusing decisions. Below, I have addressed two common concerns that parents have regarding this issue.
Common Concern 1: “I’m worried that if I continue speaking to my child in my native language while they learn English at school, they will fall behind in English.”
Response: Continuous exposure to your native language will not delay your child’s learning of English or negatively impact their English academic achievement.
Research has shown that in terms of educational outcomes, children learning English do not benefit from restricting their bilingual education. In fact, the opposite is true, where children aged 3-8 who receive consistent learning opportunities in their native language have higher academic achievement during their middle and high school years compared to children in English-only programs. This means that ongoing learning in both languages will actually improve their English academic performance.
Common Concern 2: “Since we enrolled our child in an English curriculum, they have stopped using their native language. How can I ensure that they maintain their native language while they continue to study in English?”
Response: Continue communicating with your child in your native language, even if they respond in English. This will ensure that your child is still being exposed to the language consistently.
Children in English-only pre-school programs usually start to prefer English and can tend to lose their ability to communicate in their native language. The major cause of this is likely due to an imbalance in the exposure to each language.
You can ensure that your child is consistently exposed to your native language by doing the following:
· Reading to your child
· Singing to your child
· Talking to your child during everyday activities (e.g. mealtimes, in the car, etc.)
Also, remember that you don’t have to do it all yourself! In fact, using the people and resources around you will ensure that your child is receiving more consistent exposure. Some ways to do this include:
· Grandparents as they can provide a correct native language model for your child (and they love
speaking in their native language too!)
· You Tube videos
· Employing a nanny or maid who speaks your native language fluently
· Encouraging cousins and relatives to use their native language around your child
· Enrolling your child in a day care centre where your native language is spoken
· Attending playgroups where your native language is spoken
This topic of bilingualism and education involves many aspects which need to be addressed. I will expand further on this topic in my next article ‘Bilingualism and Your Child’s Education - Part 2’. My next article will answer questions including: “what programs are available for my child at school if they need further language support?” “what is ESL?” “how do I know if my child needs ESL or speech therapy?” and “is it ok to introduce a new language at school when my child has a language delay?”
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As always, feel free to write any comments or questions below!
I would like to acknowledge and thank the following resources from where the information for this post was obtained:
Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy, and Cognition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Bialystok, E., Craik, F., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: Consequences for Mind and Brain. Trends Cognitive Science, 16, 240-250.
Bialystok,E., Craik, F., & Ryan, J. (2006). “Executive Control in a Modified Antisaccade Task: Effects of Aging and Bilingualism. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 32, 1341-1354.
Campos, S. J. (1995). The Carpenteria preschool program: A long-term effects study. In E. E. Garcia & B. McLaughlin (Eds.). Meeting the challenge of linguistic and cultural diversity in early childhood education (pp.34-48). New York: Teachers College Press.
Chang, F., Crawford, G., Early, D., Bryant, D., Howes, C., Burchinal, M., Barbarin, O., Clifford, R., & Pianta, R. (2007). Spanish-speaking children’s social and language development in pre-kindergarten classrooms. Early Education and Development, 18(2), 243-269.
Espinosa, L. M. (2008). Challenging Common Myths About Young English Language Learners. FCD Policy Brief, 8, 1-12.
Ga´ndara, Patricia C., & Hopkins. M (2010). Forbidden Language: English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies. New York: Teachers College Press. The long-term effects of bilingualism on children of immigration: student bilingualism and future earnings.
Genesee, F., Paradis. J., & Crago, M. (2004). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing
Kaushankskaya, M., & Marian, V. (2009). Bilingualism Reduces Native-Language Interference During Novel-Word Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 35, 829–835.
Kovacs, A., & Mehler, J. (2009). Cognitive Gains in 7-month old Bilingual Infants. PNAS, 106, 6556–6560.
Mechelli, A., J. T .Crinion, U. Noppeney, J. O’Doherty, J. Ashburner, R. Frackowiak, & Price. J. C. (2004). Structural Plasticity in the Bilingual Brain. Nature, 431, 757.
Restrepo, M.A., & Kruth, K. (2003). Grammatical characteristics of a bilingual student with specific language impairment. Communications Disorders Quarterly, 21, 66-76.
Schweizer, T. A., Ware, J., Ficsher, C. E., Craik, F., & Bialystok, E. (2012). Bilingualism as a contributor to cognitive reserve: Evidence from brain atrophy in Alzheimer’s disease. Cortex, 48, 991-996.
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