There’s a lot of buzz currently circulating about bi- and multilingualism—people who speak more than one language are smarter, they tend to earn higher wages, and they have clear communication advantages amid increasing globalization, according to a recent NY Times article. Learning second and third (and beyond) languages is becoming an educational priority; in fact, the language instruction at The New Century School is a big factor in why some parents choose TNCS for their kids.
Those parents are even more on target with that choice than they might have initially known, as multiplying evidence shows. Turns out, how you acquire new languages is also important, according to preliminary research sponsored by the American Councils for International Education. Initial findings suggest that the more language kids get, the bigger their improvements in all sorts of metrics, from literacy to math to creativity to executive function . . . and the list goes on.
Why Learning Another Language Matters: The Benefits
But before we get deeper into the how, let’s look more closely at the whys and wherefores of multilingualism. Learning a foreign language is not easy for most adults, if the proliferation of Rosetta Stone–type products is any indication. For kids (the younger the better), it’s a heck of a lot easier, which begs the question, why do public school systems generally wait until high school to offer foreign language instruction? Experts at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages agree that starting a second language early in childhood has many benefits, including increased competence in that language. More importantly, “Children who learn a foreign language beginning in early childhood demonstrate certain cognitive advantages over children who do not.” Furthermore, they argue that language acquisition is fundamentally a cognitive, rather than a linguistic exercise. In other words, learning a new language requires and hones problem-solving skills, which children are actively developing. Their flexible brains are ideal for the mental calisthenics language acquisition demands.
There are other ways in which “the earlier the better” comes into play—increased fluency in both the foreign and the native languages, for instance, as well as more accurate pronunciation and intonation are more easily achieved by young learners. By no means does this suggest that older learners, including adults, should give up trying to learn a new language; it just means that gains will likely be more modest. The point is, the optimal window for language acquisition is during early childhood.
Not only are kids’ brains better suited to the mental workout, but the workout itself—just as physical exercise does to the body—actually reshapes their brains to function even better. Bilingual kids’ brains always have both languages active internally even when they are only speaking one at a time. This forces their brains to be constantly monitoring their surroundings for what utterance is appropriate in the given context, sort of like being continuously presented with a minor problem to solve (or, to continue the exercise metaphor, posing low-level chronic resistance to muscles). Far from confusing kids, as once thought, the internal conflict makes their brains more nimble; they think more clearly, not less. To test this, in one experiment, scientists presented a group of kids ages 4 and 5 years with the Dimensional Change Card Sort Task, which required them to sort the cards first by color, then by shape, even when the color didn’t match (this video shows how difficult this task is for preschoolers). To perform the task, the child needs to be able to manage conflicting stimuli, a marker of executive function (for which we’ll borrow this definition: “a set of processes that are responsible for the conscious control of thought and action”). The bilingual children consistently outperformed the monolinguals.
With evidence that bilingualism leads to “cognitive flexibility” accumulating in several studies in the early 2000s, researchers next investigated at what age the advantages begin to manifest and found through meta-analysis of existing studies that at age 2 years and even earlier, bilinguals exhibit better cognitive function than their single- language counterparts.
And, although it’s easier to learn other languages at younger ages, the benefits are lifelong. Bilingual patients stave off dementia in older adulthood better and longer, for example. (See below for links to the original research papers with loads more information and data.)
Now back to the “how,” for the latest development in this ongoing inquiry, it seems that immersion in another language facilitates its acquisition. So, with language, it’s not just the earlier the better, but also the deeper the better. Language immersion is just what it sounds like, except with an additional nuance in the scholastic environment: the student learns the language and is also learning other subjects in that second language. Thus, math, phys ed, or art instructions are presented in, for example, Spanish to native English speakers. Given the increasing diversity of the U.S. population, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences is currently funding research on the efficacy of the immersion approach, with all indices pointing to favorable results. As stated above, the preliminary findings show better academic performance.
So, to wrap up, what does all this have to do with TNCS? Well, in several important ways, TNCS is getting it right.
- First, TNCS provides both Spanish and Mandarin language instruction, arguably the two most relevant non-English languages in the changing U.S. demography.
- Second, language instruction begins as early as possible—as soon as the student matriculates. For pre-primary–enrolled students, this is age 2 years.
- Third, immersion is central to TNCS philosophy. Pre-primary students are fully immersed in either a Spanish or Mandarin classroom. Primary and elementary students get both formal instruction in Mandarin and Spanish and partial immersion in Spanish (e.g., phys ed at The Lingo Leap might be taught in Spanish, etc.).
- Fourth, TNCS encourages parent participation in this important process. Print and post the Word of the Week in Spanish and Mandarin featured on TNCS’s website. Parents can learn right along with their kids!
- Fifth, Montessori education inherently cultivates executive function; therefore, the pairing of Montessori-inspired and language curricula is synergistic—each component enhances the other.
It’s a beautiful thing.
For more information:
- Read the seminal 2004 article from Developmental Science here.
- Read the 2009 article from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America here.
- Read the 2010 article from Journal of Experimental Child Psychology here.
Ciao! ¡Adiós! Auf Wiedersehen! Au revoir! Zàijiàn! Ilalliqa! Shalom! Sayonara!
Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts in the Comments section.
Stay tuned for a follow-up language post featuring an interview with TNCS’s language curriculum specialist!
I saw that context managing in action last fall when my kids had a playdate with a younger Spanish-speaking neighbor. He was upset about something, so my daughter walked over and comforted him in Spanish. It was as natural as breathing to her and very eye-opening to me. Neither of my children speak at home in the languages they are learning at school, and now I understand why—it’s not the right context. I wonder how they would do on the dimensional change card sorting task :)?
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