Something like 60 percent of the world’s population speaks more than one language, a statistic in which U.S. students often fall far behind. Current research seems to show that leaves our students out in the cold in more than just conversation. Bilingualism is the equivalent of weightlifting for the brain. It has all kinds of positive correlations.
Bilingual children read better. Even children who are only technically bilingual, which is to say they can understand both languages but are only comfortable in one, have fluent-level reading comprehension in both of their languages. Their test scores usually map consistently with monolingual students their age, but since they can take that test in two languages, that means they’re already a mile ahead.
Bilingual children pay attention better. They show increased ability to task switch and inhibit behaviors, both of which are a feature of paying attention and retaining information from the world around them. They often know which language is appropriate long before they are given a verbal cue.
Closely linked to the above point, bilingual children show heightened empathy. In following social cues to switch from language A to language B, they’re more observant of what the people around them need. Tests even show that they tend to be aware of theory of mind (the understanding that other people’s actions come from their private thoughts, which may differ from one’s own) at a much younger age than monolingual children.
Bilingual children, when taught with bilingualism in the classroom, show higher test scores, fewer behavioral problems, and better attendance than classes that teach either only in a native language or only in immersion.
Bilingual children are likely to remain mentally healthy for longer. It’s long been indicated that the more languages you speak, the later in life you are to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Adults who have retained two or more languages tend to remain functional for longer with lower degrees of age-related brain damage. That’s a very long-term benefit, but not a small one.
What positive correlations have you seen in the bilingual kids in your classroom? Do you have concerns about any negative factors around bilingualism and education? Please share your thoughts in the comments.