It’s common for expat parents to raise children who grow up learning more than one language at a time. English combined with a native tongue is usually the blend of languages that expat children speak. Such parents could justifiably be concerned that this early-age bilingualism has a negative impact on their children’s cognitive development and educational achievement. Fortunately, a 1962 study by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert found that bilingual children demonstrated superiority to their monolingual counterparts in both verbal and non-verbal intelligence tests, particularly those in which they required a greater degree of mental flexibility. More recent research has also consistently found significant advantages for bilingual children in several areas of learning ability and perception.A number of linguists also agree that there exists a ‘critical period’ in early childhood (roughly from birth until puberty), during which it is easiest to acquire a second language. They find that children develop better pronunciation and long-term grammatical skills when an additional language is learned at a younger age. So expat parents can embrace the positive influence that bilingualism has on their children’s education as we examine the wide-ranging impact of learning in a second language.
It Makes Them Smarter
Simply put, children who learn a second language become smarter than those who are only proficient in one. It improves their brains’ functioning by challenging them to recognise and work out meanings of unfamiliar words in different language systems. Switching between languages helps the brain multi-task and filter information more efficiently as it absorbs new, intricate patterns. Bilingual children tend to have a more diversified set of mental abilities and so are better placed to tackle complex problem-solving tasks. They will have improved memories and increased attention spans which gives them greater powers of concentration. They are also more logical and rational in their thinking, while being more perceptive and aware of their surrounding environments.
Aside from an enhanced metalinguistic awareness (the understanding of linguistic structure), they show accelerated progress in learning to read, write and solve non-verbal problems which require focusing attention on a specific aspect while discarding irrelevant information. Children who learn a second language are likely to have higher scores on standardised tests (like the SAT and ACT exams), particularly in maths, reading comprehension and vocabulary.
It Improves First Language Skills
While learning a second language, children will benefit from an increased command over their primary language. They’ll have a stronger grasp on linguistic mechanics including grammar, conjugations, sentence structures, idioms, vocabulary and comprehension. Students become more aware of subtle differences between languages and develop a keener listening ability, making them better placed to interpret nuance and meaning.
Bilingual children enjoy positive cognitive effects that allow the brain to analyse and process more complex language structures, which makes them better writers, speakers and communicators in whichever language they choose to use. It forces them to become better listeners and pay greater attention to the basic nuts and bolts of their own language, thereby gaining insight into grammatical rules and construction that might otherwise have been taken for granted. The language acquisition skills they learn early on can also be applied if they choose to learn additional languages in the future. The muscle memory is retained and the brain intrinsically understands how to pick up and structure a new language, making it a lot easier for them to become multilingual experts.
It Improves Memory
Like the muscles in your body, the brain tends to work better with regular exercise. Learning a second language involves not only memorising vocabulary and rules, but also recalling and applying that knowledge frequently. This gives the memory a good work out, strengthening its ability and thereby benefiting a child’s overall education by helping them efficiently recall facts, figures, names and lists when required.
A study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that bilingual children outperformed their monolingual peers in tasks that involved their working memory (that part of the memory dedicated to storing and processing information over a short time), concluding that their knowledge of an additional language was responsible for this superiority. Multilingual children’s brains get more exercise, resulting in them being better at retaining information, which gives them an edge in all kinds of educational pursuits.
It Enhances Multitasking Abilities
While learning in a second language, children become adept at juggling different structures of speech and writing. This skill translates to other areas of learning as well, allowing them to effectively focus their minds on multiple fronts. A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (USA) found that bilingual children are excellent multitaskers, able to selectively focus their attention while ignoring distractions. They have the ability to efficiently switch between tasks quickly and easily, similar to their ability to switch between languages.
A study by Pennsylvania State University revealed similar findings, showing that children who learn more than one language had brains that were better developed at coping with the demands of multitasking. For those not skilled at it, multitasking can be very stressful, leading to errors when they juggle between various activities. Bilingual children are naturally skilled at it though, and face less stress in demanding academic environments. They are able to show high levels of cognitive flexibility too, i.e. change their response according to the situation they are faced with.
It Improves Decision-Making Skills
A study by the University of Chicago demonstrated that decision-making is an easier process for bilingual students, who tend to make more rational and logical choices. They are better suited to pick up on nuances and subtleties in different circumstances, having been exposed to the intricacies of learning a second language. They end up being more confident about the decisions they make, after going through their options in both languages and then judging if their initial conclusions still apply.
Children who learn a second language develop a considerable understanding of the complexities of any given situation they find themselves in and make more rational decisions than monolinguals, who tend to be more emotional in their decision-making. Their superior knowledge of linguistic rules and expanded vocabulary give bilingual learners a more insightful and discriminating approach to their educational decisions, and this makes them better judges of appropriateness and hidden meanings that they may encounter in their academic lives.
It Increases Attention Span
According to research published in the journal Brain and Language, learning a second language helps children focus better on the task at hand and also deal with distractions in a suitable manner. Bilingual children get plenty of practice switching from one language to another, and deciding which language to use in a particular situation. This makes them adept at focusing and filtering information that comes their way. Additionally, a study done at the Spanish University of Pompeu Fabra showed that multilingual students are more perceptive and are better observers of their surroundings. They are quick to notice and disregard information that can be deemed irrelevant, deceptive or misleading.
In essence, children who benefit from learning in a second language are better at concentrating on what they are doing at a given point of time, be it reading, writing or studying. They are also less easily distracted by their external environment, which makes them more attentive and better students overall.
It Gives Access To A Wider Curriculum
Students who learn in a second language have the advantage of a wider curriculum from which to choose their fields of study. They will have more options going forward in their academic lives than their monolingual peers, which will have a positive effect on their higher education and ultimately on their career paths. Most schools and universities around the world allow children the freedom to pick their desired courses to a certain extent, and those who have been learning an additional language will have a more diverse set of options from which to choose.
Having a broader set of choices can be an invaluable asset for a child when planning for their future. Not only does it set them on their desired path, but it can give them the freedom to study and work in a wider variety of geographical locations. They needn’t be boxed in by routine coursework, and can add to their superior knowledge base by studying a more varied set of subjects.
It Builds Self-Confidence
Self-confidence can play an important part in a child’s ability to make the most of their education. Those who learn a second language have been seen to develop a wide array of their mental faculties which subsequently builds their self-confidence. The techniques involved in mastering an additional language at a young age yields a significant sense of open-mindedness that allows children to benefit from more meaningful interactions. It becomes easier for them to speak with a larger network of peers and teachers and consequently gain more from their education.
As children succeed in their endeavours at learning in a second language, their confidence grows and they become more popular students because of their skills. They can build a larger support system which will help them as they continue their academic development. Additionally, they will progress further on their path to self-discovery, coming to terms with the world and appreciating the richness of different cultures as well as their own. The many cognitive, social, cultural and personal advantages of their bilingual education will undoubtedly see them grow in self-belief and confidence.
It Enhances Communication Skills
Children who learn a second language are known to be better communicators than students who only know one. To begin with, they tend to be better, more attentive listeners with a keener ear for subtlety and nuance. In fact, a study at the University of British Columbia found that the benefits of a multilingual setting begin even before children can speak, as they are able to differentiate between spoken languages they are as yet unfamiliar with. This increased perceptual sensitivity is an invaluable tool that makes it easier for such children to learn additional languages and develop excellent communication skills later in life.
They tend to be more culturally aware and respectful of people from diverse backgrounds, as well as appreciative of opinions that differ from their own. It’s easier for them to connect with multiple communities, bridge cultural gaps and reap the benefits of such interactions. It inspires a sense of solidarity, tolerance and empathy that is both rare and invaluable in society today. They also have the advantage of an alternative viewpoint that enhances their ability to communicate with a wider set of people, which is significant in a globally connected environment.
It Gives Them a Competitive Edge
In today’s cutthroat academic and professional world, young students should be encouraged to seize any advantage they can get. Learning a second language gives them an edge over monolingual students by providing them with basic cognitive advantages as well as making superior academic choices available to them, in terms of a wider curriculum and possible international exposure. Bilingual children have the opportunity to build healthier resumes by taking part in cross-cultural events and competitions that many of their peers may not be able to participate in. This gives them a richer educational experience and makes them more attractive to potential employers such as multinational corporations.
In 2014, the Eton Institute’s Language Development in the Workforce survey reported that 89% of clients agreed employees proficient in more than one language added value to their workforce, while another 88% said that hiring team members with strong linguistic skills was important to their organisation. An education that includes learning in a second language certainly gives students a competitive edge in a global marketplace and imparts a valuable skill-set that will help them succeed in their chosen careers.