Why Second Language Learning Is Important
It is unfortunate that ESL and second language classes are often the first programs deemphasized whenever school districts tighten their budgets. Studies show, however, that second-language learning not only strengthens a student’s linguistic abilities but also builds a child’s cognitive and creative abilities as well.
Martha Abbott is a director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and a strong advocate for language study. “It is critical,” say Abbott, “that foreign language instruction be available to all students throughout their PK-12 academic experience. Knowing other languages and understanding other cultures is a 21st Century skill set for American students as they prepare to live and work in a global society. No matter what career students enter, they will be interacting with others around the world on a routine basis and doing business locally with those whose native language is not English.”
Studies on Language Learning
Researchers find that children gaining early instruction can easily develop advanced levels of proficiencies in one or more languages. These young learners have a natural curiosity about learning which is evident as they develop language skills. These attributes tend to make them more open and accepting of people who speak other languages and come from other cultures.
Therese Sullivan Caccavale, president of the National Network for Early Language Learning, states that learning language has been shown to enhance a child’s cognitive development. Children who learn a foreign language beginning in early childhood demonstrate certain cognitive advantages over children who do not. She goes on to say that foreign language learning is much more of a cognitive problem-solving activity than it is a linguistic activity. It helps increase critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of mind in young children. As they grow older, these students tend to out-score their non-foreign language learning peers in verbal skills and other subjects such as math that require them to exercise problem solving abilities.
Although these early learners may struggle the first two years in school in other subjects, when compared to monolingual children their same age, they soon exceed these same children in a variety of subjects. The old notion that immigrant children need to transition to English without regard to their native language is a belief has been replaced in recent years. Studies now show that immigrant children navigating two languages, or monolingual children learning a new language, is extremely beneficial to enhancing a child’s cognitive skills.
Ken Stewart, 2006 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year, said that every piece of research in the field points to the benefits of starting a second language as early as three years of age. The other key to becoming proficient in another language is a long, continuous contact with the language. “Until we have a well-articulated PK-16 second language buy-in from legislators, school boards, administrators, and parents, the U.S. will continue to lag behind other nation, thus prolonging monolingualism.”
Abbott explained that the advantage for younger learners is that they have the ability to mimic native pronunciation and intonation. In addition, literacy skills that are being developed in the native language transfer to the learning of the new language rather than the old belief that a child would be too confused to learn two languages at a time. Studies substantiate that the child carries these academic gains throughout their school years.
Today, school districts are finding the benefits of engaging children earlier in immersion programs. These programs are effective because they use second language acquisition as the vehicle for learning the general education curriculum. This makes learning languages inherently more interesting for the students and maximizes the instructional time by accomplishing two goals at once: language acquisition and content learning.
When should language study begin? Abbott says that the crucial factor is that students begin language study as early as possible. Research finds that our brains are most conducive to learning a second language during our formative years of language development. Older children and adults use another part of the brain that makes language learning more arduous. Preschoolers have the ability to learn multiple languages if given the proper support.
With all this said, language acquisition should be a life-long endeavor. For example, recent studies have connected learning a second language with delaying Alzheimers. In Europe, there are even courses where children and grandparents attend classes together to learn a second language.
How Do we Ensure Children are supported in learning languages?
Abbott suggests that parents need to get organized and advocate loudly for language education in their communities. Many elementary level programs have been implemented based on parent demand.
At Children Bilingual Books, we work with bilingual parents to ensure their children have the tools needed to strengthen their language skills. Each book is designed to give the child the social and emotional skills needed to learn in a structured environment. The dual-text format allows both parent and child to read either text and make language comparisons.
Parents should hold informational meetings with other parents, school administrators, and school board members to ensure language programs are supported within their child’s curriculum, so that when budgets get tight, our children still have a voice, or two.