Benefits of a Bilingual Education

Nimet Yusuf

Bilingual education is grounded in common sense, experience, and research. Common sense says that children will not learn academic subject material if they can't understand the language of instruction. Experience documents that students from minority-language backgrounds historically have higher dropout rates and lower achievement scores. Finally, there is a basis for bilingual education that draws upon research in language acquisition and education. Maple Bear bases its programming on this research.

It is estimated that between 60 and 75 percent of the world is bilingual, and bilingual education is a common educational approach used throughout the world. It may be implemented in different ways for majority and/or minority language populations, and there may be different educational and linguistic goals in different countries. In Canada, immersion education programs are designed for native speakers of the majority language (English) to become proficient in a minority language (French), whereas heritage-language programs are implemented by Maple Bear in countries around the world to assist native speakers of indigenous and immigrant languages become proficient in English.

Good bilingual education programs recognize and build upon the knowledge and skills children bring to school. They are designed to be linguistically, culturally, and developmentally appropriate for the students and have the following characteristics:

  1. High expectations for students and clear program goals.
  2. A curriculum that is comparable to the material covered in the English-only classroom in Canada.
  3. Multicultural instruction that recognizes and incorporates students' home cultures.
  4. Administrative and instructional staff, and community support for the program.
  5. Appropriately trained personnel.
  6. Adequate resources and linguistically, culturally, and developmentally appropriate materials.
  7. Frequent and appropriate monitoring of student performance.
  8. Parental and family involvement.

By the time babies are eight months old, those raised in bilingual homes seem to have skills not possessed by those raised in monolingual homes.

University of B.C. developmental psychologist Janet Werker studied babies growing up in bilingual (Spanish/Catalan) homes and found that not only could they distinguish between the two languages, but that they also were able to distinguish between languages they weren't familiar with, such as English and French.

This suggests that they have learned something about what makes languages different, a skill children raised in monolingual homes appear to lack.

Werker's research is in line with much work that suggests speaking more than one language requires the development and maintenance of specific cognitive skills -skills that can help us well into old age.

During a discussion about the research, panellists suggest that bilingualism requires us to exercise higher brain functions, and that consequently, bilingual people develop a "cognitive reserve" -an ability to function longer than single language speakers.

So bilingualism, it seems, isn't just good for Canada -it's good for everyone.

What are the connections between second language learning and literacy skills development?

Research demonstrates that learning a second language can significantly enhance literacy skills development.

‘Learning a new language teaches the learner something about the nature of language and languages, and this is knowledge that needs to be developed by a literate person'

'Language teachers do not only teach a language, they also teach about language as a concept, and about communication, context and culture.’ At Maple Bear we discuss Canada and compare it to the country that the school is located in.

‘Second language learning is therefore a resource for enhancing literacy, not a problem for acquiring literacy. It forms part of the whole package for learning about language as a part of schooling and provides additional insights into the nature of language that are not available to the monolingual learner’.
(Liddicoat, A., Learning a language, learning about language, learning to be literate. Babel, Vol 35, Number 3, 2000-2001, p.15)

Students learning another language develop understandings of language as a system by drawing on comparative language analysis.

Never mind how well spoken you might be now, you will never again be as adept with languages as the day you were born. Indeed, the youngest person in any room is almost always the best linguist there too. There are 6,800 languages in the world, and since you can’t know where you’ll be born, you have to pop from the womb to be able to speak any one of them. That talent fades fast — as early as nine months after birth, some of our language synapses start getting pruned away. But well into your grammar-school years, your ability to learn a second — or third or fourth — language is still remarkable.

That, it turns out, is very good for the brain. New studies are showing that a multilingual brain is nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer.

Bilingual education ensures that students can benefit from knowing more than one language. With the implementation of English and French services across Canada, the job opportunities are plenty as employers seek bilingual employees in businesses and corporations. On top of this, bilingual education helps students by offering exchange program opportunities where students can fully immerse themselves in the language they are studying to become more culturally and linguistically proficient. Already Maple Bear has helped to assist students in Brazil have a placement in a Canadian school for a period of time. In addition, studies show that bilingual students are ultimately smarter and healthier than their monolingual counterparts and that bilingual education fosters the idea of a multicultural nation, by creating a unity within Canada’s borders that accepts diversity. We find that bilingualism promotes a universal communication and understanding by giving someone a better view of various cultural perspectives around the globe. We feel this not only makes people better global citizens, but in general leads to a higher quality of life.

New York Times reports that this view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.

The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.

In a 2009 study led by Agnes Kovacs of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, 7-month-old babies exposed to two languages from birth were compared with peers raised with one language. In an initial set of trials, the infants were presented with an audio cue and then shown a puppet on one side of a screen. Both infant groups learned to look at that side of the screen in anticipation of the puppet. But in a later set of trials, when the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of the screen, the babies exposed to a bilingual environment quickly learned to switch their anticipatory gaze in the new direction while the other babies did not.

In short, bilingual learners do have an advantage over monolingual learners.

By: Janet Andrews

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