Research has shown that bilingualism is beneficial for children’s development and their future. Children exposed to different languages become more aware of different cultures, other people and other points of view. But they also tend to be better than monolinguals at ‘multitasking’ and focusing attention. They are often more precocious readers, and generally find it easier to learn other languages. Bilingualism gives children much more than two languages!
More recent research also suggests that learning another language may have benefits in later life, delaying the onset of dementia symptoms, and slowing cognitive aging. The good news is that these benefits seem to exist even when people learn a second language later in life.
Is it true that bilingual children have an advantage? We sometimes think of bilingualism as the exception, but it is more common than you might think.
There are many ways of being bilingual:
• Some children don’t use English at home.
• Some children use different languages with different family members.
• Some children can understand a language but not speak or write it …
But all children are sensitive to attitudes about their languages. Bilingualism is a fantastic opportunity to help a child but to reap its benefits, children need to feel that both their languages are valued. Lots of factors affect children’s achievement, such as motivation and social circumstances. Neither of these is directly linked to being bilingual. However, research does suggest that speaking multiple languages helps children perform better in some areas, especially tasks that involve ignoring irrelevant information. On the other hand, bilingual children sometimes start talking slightly later than their monolingual peers – the good news is that they soon catch up.
Won’t it confuse young children if we learn another language in class?
Research shows that children don’t confuse their languages, no matter how early they start learning. Once children know a second language, it’s easier to learn a third, or even fourth. Scientific studies also show that learning another language helps children understand that different people have different points of view. So learning a language together in class also helps to develop children’s social skills.
Won’t children struggle at school if they don’t speak English at home?
Evidence shows that children will soon learn English once they are exposed to it at school, although we recommend that families try and provide their child with some English input before starting school, for example an English language playgroup. Once a child is bilingual, they often find it easier to learn other languages or to learn to read.
What languages are the most important?
Some business sectors may view certain languages as more relevant than others, based on their working environment. But in terms of cognitive benefits (e.g. improved decision making) and social skills (bilinguals often find it easier to take someone else’s perspective), all languages are equally useful. The increased flexibility often found in bilinguals will benefit a child, whatever their future career path.