Bilingualism: Should Your Child Learn Foreign Languages?

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“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein

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The advantages of bilingualism

Until about the 1960s bilingualism was viewed as a disadvantage and a disorder. People believed that bilingualism led to a “language handicap”, lower IQ scores, cognitive deficiencies and even mental retardation. Thanks to science and research over the last three decades, we know now, that the opposite is true.

Learning foreign languages is actually beneficial and offers numerous advantages to a child as well as society.

First of all, bilingualism has a substantial impact on cognitive functions: the way we think, perceive things, make decisions or solve problems. Studies at Harvard University confirmed that learning a foreign language increases critical thinking skills, and improves the flexibility of a young mind and creativity. Surprisingly enough, bilingual students out-score non-foreign language learning colleagues not only in verbal but also in math sections of standardized tests. This fact proves that learning a foreign language is not just a linguistic activity but cognitive one too.

Recent research conducted at the University of Granada and the University of York in Toronto (Journal of Experimental Child Psychology) has revealed that bilingual children develop better working memory responsible for storing, processing and updating information over a short period of time. This type of memory plays a crucial role in mental calculation and reading comprehension.

Although some parents are against the concept of learning a foreign language by their children, knowing a foreign language enables them to focus better, multitask, shift attention, inhibit irrelevant information or distraction, as they practice this skill every time they speak. Dual or triple language input does not confuse a child. A child can learn two or three languages at the same time, but for obvious reasons, the process will take longer than learning one language, which is absolutely normal.

Learning vocabulary, grammar rules, sentence structures help to exercise and strengthen our biggest mental muscle – the brain. The impact of bilingualism on children, according to James Flynn, a renowned scientist, shows that the exposure to more than one language is an exceptional way of flexing those brain muscles and building them up.

When it comes to the right age, a child should start learning a foreign language, a common agreement prevails – “the sooner the better”. A joint study of The Neuro at McGill University and Oxford University revealed that “age of acquisition is crucial in laying down the structure for language learning”. The advantages for young learners are vast. At this age, children have time to learn through play-like activities and exploring. Learning can be informal. Children’s minds are not cluttered with facts to be stored and tested so they can try out a new language without any embarrassment or fear. They have the ability to mimic the native pronunciation and intonation of a new language. Since their literacy skills, open-mindedness, increased perception are just being developed, learning another language results in better future academic achievements and gains.

New research from the University of Washington shows that babies raised in bilingual households show brain activity associated with executive functioning as early as 11 months of age.

Many parents would ask: Is my child too old to learn a foreign language? Of course not. It is never too late to give your child the far-reaching benefits of being bilingual. The process may be longer and require more effort from an older learner, since inhibitions, self-consciousness and fear may slow down the learning process. However, motivation is the key, according to Therese Sullivan Caccavale, the President of the National Network for Early Language Learning. Determination, desire and drive to learn help students conquer some age-related factors in second language learning.

Let’s not forget about other crucial aspects of speaking foreign languages like a bigger view of the world, broaden horizons, being part of a global community and greater college and career opportunities. Plethora of scientifically proven medical evidence confirms other health benefits including delaying the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, helping children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and many more.

Bilingual children also develop empathy for others, as well as curiosity for discovering new cultures, which allows them to be better prepared to coexist in a multicultural world as adults.

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“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” -Frank Smith

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Author:Izabela Wojciechowska-O'Kane

Izabela Wojciechowska-O'Kane is a qualified Financial Advisor, ESL teacher, and a freelance writer. She believes in a balanced life based on a happy family, healthy lifestyle, realistic, modest and simple approach. Izabela was born in Poland but lived in many countries over the years, which gave her an in-depth knowledge of many cultures, cuisines and people.

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