This year for the first time, our school district offered a dual language program, and my husband and I strongly considered enrolling our twins. We ultimately decided against it for several reasons, including that it required a change of campus and our children being separated from neighborhood friends. We also worried about how well they would learn if they were trying to pick up a new language at the same time. Would they even be able to understand their lessons?
School has started, and I think we made the right choice for our family and our particular kids. What I have come to realize, however, was that my fears were not warranted. In fact, there are many benefits to dual language learning.
Researchers say dual language learners, on the whole, experience greater academic achievement on standardized tests, across multiple content areas. Take math, for example. Numerous studies have found a link between learning a second language and higher math achievement scores. In high school, this positive correlation even includes the SAT and ACT. That means you can consider those language lessons one more weapon in the college test prep arsenal!
The benefits of bilingualism continue into college, as research has found a relationship between the high school study of Latin, French, German or Spanish and greater academic performance by college students.
I was tempted to write these findings off, assuming high school students who had enrolled in a second language were perhaps more likely to challenge themselves, but the study compared students of equal academic ability.
Also surprising to me was the news that a child’s English awareness can likewise benefit from learning another language. There went my theory that trying to learn the constructs of two languages at the same time could cause confusion! Findings have supported the idea that Spanish immersion offers such English-language benefits as increased receptive English vocabulary, grammatical judgment and word recognition. Similar results have been found with the study of other languages, particularly Latin.
The benefits keep coming. A study of 6th-grade schoolchildren examined differences in scores along three categories of reading achievement: vocabulary, comprehension and total reading skills. Results of the study indicated a significant difference between the reading achievement scores of students who were taking another language versus those with no second language instruction.
As if greater academic achievement on standardized tests, higher math scores, greater college-level academic performance, increased English awareness and greater reading achievement were not enough, dual language study also has a positive effect on science problem-solving abilities. It seems that children who have studied a second language consistently outperform others in both the quality and the syntactic complexity of the scientific hypotheses they generate. In other words, their scientific ideas and the ways in which they communicate them are more advanced than their monolingual peers.
Moving away from academics, did you know that learning a second language early in life can actually provide your child with an enhanced memory? Bilingual study subjects were better able to recall objects, tasks and word lists when compared to their monolingual peers. Studying a second language can also help your child to better focus her attention when problem solving, perhaps because the process of learning the language itself requires the learner to practice focusing her attention.
Exposing your child to a second language can also help him to become a more empathetic person. Research suggests that language learners develop a more positive attitude toward their second language and the native speakers of that language.
Finally, learning another language can protect your child much later in life. Studies have found that bilingualism helps to offset age-related losses in certain thinking processes. Researchers found that those who spoke a second language delayed certain types of dementia by an average of 4.5 years. The good news is that you don’t have to be proficient in the second language to reap the benefits. The effort of trying to learn is what counts.
If this all sounds convincing, you might be wondering how to begin. In the elementary years, the easiest option can be enrollment in a language immersion school. If your local public school doesn’t offer that option, there are often Spanish lunch bunches or after-school language classes. And, don’t overlook your public library. Many offer bilingual story times, as well as books, CDs and DVDs in non-English languages. You can tune your radio to Spanish music stations or catch a Spanish show on TV. In addition, you can take advantage of private or community education language classes.
Once your child moves into middle and high school, it can become easier to expose him to a second language, because most schools offer several language options. The same is true for college-aged students. And remember, the benefits of learning a language extend into old age, so don’t overlook yourself. The goal for anyone in your family doesn’t have to be perfection. Benefits come from the practice alone. Just take it one word at a time.
Alison Bogle is an Austin-based freelance writer and mom of three.