Taking it One Baby Step at a Time: Why We Need Early Bilingual Education
By Michelle Lo, 17, New York.
If you’re like any typical American high school student, this is how your language-learning journey will go: you spend three years blazing through vocabulary and learning all of the tenses, grammar, and tones of the language, only to forget everything that you’ve learned by the time you’ve graduated (except for maybe how to ask to use the bathroom or where the library is).
Meanwhile, with the rise of globalization over the last century, bilingualism and multilingualism have become some of the most important skills to have as an individual. Some of the many benefits to bilingualism include a communication advantage in the world’s competitive job market, the ability to communicate and connect with people from a variety of social settings, and a wider global perspective. So, if being bilingual or multilingual is that important, how might we improve the way we teach language such that our students can actually become fluent in them?
The solution, as simple as it may be, is to have our students start early.
One of the clearest benefits to learning a new language early is that the younger you are, the easier it is to pick up the language. In a linguistic study done by a research team from Boston-based universities, researchers aimed to pinpoint the age at which our ability to learn a new language disappears through a short online grammar quiz. Individuals were asked about their age, language proficiency, and time studying English. The study concluded that children up to the age of 18 are proficient at learning a new language, while children up to the age of 10 can achieve the level of grammatical fluency of a native speaker. There are many reasons why children generally have an easier time learning a new language. Younger children are less fearful of making mistakes than adults and teenagers, a hurdle that one must overcome in learning a new language. Certain brain structures in children also make this process of language learning easier. One study conducted by researchers at UCLA observed rapid growth in the parts of the brain that are responsible for developing language skills between the ages 6 and 13, but a sharp decline in growth after age 13.
Contrary to what some may believe about bilingualism, learning a second language during a person’s most formative years will not affect their ability to speak their primary one nor will it confuse a child. As a matter of fact, numerous scientific studies have concluded that being multilingual can offer numerous cognitive and intellectual benefits for children. A 2004 study by psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee found that the brains of bilingual children had better executive functioning than those of their monolingual peers. This meant that bilingual children were better at planning, solving problems, etc., which stemmed from their ability to switch from one language to the other. Various studies have also proven that bilingualism can lead to higher intellectual performance and higher creativity.
Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence supporting early language learning, the U.S. is falling significantly behind other countries in foreign language learning. As the American Councils for International Education reported in 2017, out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, only 20% of K-12 students are enrolled in foreign language classes, compared to the European median average of 92% thanks to the national-level mandates for foreign language education. In addition, many European students begin to take foreign language classes from the ages 6 to 9, whereas most American students begin in their high school years. Unlike many European nations, many states lack requirements regarding foreign language education or the age at which students should start in place, causing more lag for American students.
In order to make up for this lag, we need to start taking steps in emphasizing foreign language education, beginning in early childhood. That could mean implementing a more standardized system in the state where all students can begin to get some exposure to foreign languages from kindergarten. We could also expand dual language programs, one of the many great ways early childhood foreign language education can tap into a child’s language learning potential. Although dual language programs vary in form, most are designed to teach students in two languages in order to foster bilingualism and biliteracy. Usually, one half of the instructional day is taught in a foreign language and the other half in English. Many of these dual language classes are immersive. For example, children are encouraged to learn through play, song, and social interactions with their peers, which, over time, can help to foster their interests in learning the language and culture. These programs are great for English-learners and native English-speakers alike. For English-learning students, a bilingual classroom allows them to build friendships with their native English-speaking peers, a relationship that would not have been possible if it wasn’t for their mutual understanding of each other’s languages. For native English speakers, sharing the classroom with non-native speakers and immigrant students will help normalize the diversity in languages and cultures in the classroom.
If we expect our coming generations to build a future that is diverse and multicultural, we need to first construct the foundation: an improved and earlier foreign language education system for all students. Students, teachers, administrators, families, and change-makers of any form can all contribute to this cause by recognizing this need and advocating for better early bilingual education, whether that be writing to your local representatives or spreading awareness within your community. That way, we’ll just be one baby step closer to a truly globalized future.
—Michelle Lo, 16, New York. She adds: “I’m an American-born-Chinese, or ABC, that has always been interested in language and culture. Growing up, I spoke only Chinese as a young child but after rigorously studying only English during my childhood years, I lost my ability to speak Chinese. This is something that I deeply regret as I felt that it created a barrier between me and my culture. As a result, I hope to spread awareness about the importance of bilingualism in our multicultural society to prevent cases like mine from happening.”
American Councils for International Education, 2017, The National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report, www.americancouncils.org/sites/default/files/FLE-report-June17.pdf.
“Benefits of Learning a Second Language at an Early Age: Ertheo Education & Sport.” Benefits of Learning a Second Language as a Child | Ertheo Education & Sport, 10 June 2020, www.ertheo.com/blog/en/learning-a-second-language/.
Bhattacharjee, Yudhijit. “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Mar. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html.
Devlin, Kat. “Most European Students Are Learning a Foreign Language in School While Americans Lag.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 6 Aug. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/06/most-european-students-are-learning-a-foreign-language-in-school-while-americans-lag/.
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