The Benefits of Bilingual Education and Its Impact on Student Learning and Growth

A teacher points to a chalkboard in front of a group of students.

Approximately 5 million students in the United States are English language learners, and the number of English language learners (ELLs) in the US public school system continues to rise steadily, especially in more urbanized school districts.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), students who speak English as a second language are more likely to struggle with academics, and only about 67 percent will graduate from public high school in four years—whereas the average for all students is 84 percent. ELL students can better develop their English proficiency and close the gap in achievement by participating in language assistance programs or bilingual education programs, the NCES explains.

The benefits of bilingual education can begin with students in elementary school and follow them throughout their lives. Education’s impact can lead to a variety of outcomes depending on whether ELL students learn English in a monolingual or bilingual environment. Educators in diverse classrooms or working as school leaders should consider the benefits of bilingual education when creating curricula and establishing desired student learning outcomes.

What Is Bilingual Education?

While bilingual education can take many forms, it strives to incorporate multiple languages into the process of teaching. For example, since there is such a large Spanish-speaking population in the United States, many primary and secondary school students can benefit from educational environments where they are learning in both English and Spanish.

Bilingual education can often be the most effective when children are beginning preschool or elementary school. If children grow up speaking Spanish as their primary language, it can be difficult for them to be placed in English-speaking elementary schools and be expected to understand their teachers and classmates. In a bilingual classroom, however, young students can further establish their foundation of Spanish as well as English, better preparing them for the rest of their education.

Of course, this works for students who begin school speaking any language as their primary language. Children whose parents have come to the United States from another country may have limited English skills when they first begin elementary school. Teachers working in bilingual education classrooms will balance their use of two languages when teaching math, science, history, and other subjects to help these students develop a stronger foundation of their first language as well as English as their second language.

Academic Benefits

Students can benefit in many ways from participating in bilingual education programs or classrooms. Some of the benefits of bilingual education relate to intellect. For example, research has shown that students who can speak and write in multiple languages have cognitive advantages over their monolingual peers. Those who learn a second or third language from a young age are able to develop communication skills and a higher degree of literacy. Children who grow up in bilingual environments develop a keen awareness of how language works and have a stronger foundation for learning additional languages in the future.

Students can also benefit academically from bilingual education. Students who pursue higher education are typically required to take a foreign language at the collegiate level, so those who have been exposed to bilingual educational environments before college—and speak two or more languages—have an advantage over their peers. They can advance in their studies and feel comfortable with multiple communities of students on their campuses.

Students who are exposed to multiple languages throughout high school and college can also have long-term career benefits. Their proficiency in multiple languages is an advantage when they graduate and enter the workplace as professionals. Every industry has a need for effective communicators who can speak multiple languages to meet the needs of the growing number of English language learners in the United States. International operations also have a great need for professionals who can speak multiple languages and represent US-based organizations and companies.

Growth beyond Academics

While there are many benefits of bilingual education related to school and work, bilingual education programs also have a huge impact on students’ cultural and social growth. Children who grow up speaking English as a second language often come from culturally diverse backgrounds. Incorporating cultural education in the classroom can help create enriching academic experiences for all students.

Exploring multiple languages in the classroom provides a foundation for cultural education that allows students to learn and grow alongside classmates from a different cultural background. As a result, students learn to become more adaptable and more aware of the world around them.

To encourage the academic and cultural development of students in bilingual education settings, teachers should have a strong foundation in education and leadership. They should demonstrate a passion for teaching as well as an understanding of how language and culture work together in their students’ academic journeys. Educators should be aware of the role that policies play in the educational environments they cultivate and have an understanding of how to best represent their students’ cultural backgrounds.

Pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching or Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership

To implement the best teaching practices in bilingual education classrooms, teachers should be equipped with a foundation in transformational leadership and cultural awareness. To that end, teachers looking to have a meaningful impact on the lives of their students can further their own education and pursue an advanced degree in education policy and leadership. Through programs like American University’s Master of Arts in Teaching and Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership , educators can broaden their worldviews, engaging in topics such as education law and policy, quantitative research in education, and educational leadership and organizational change.

Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies: Importance, Benefits & Tips

EdD vs. PhD in Education: Requirements, Career Outlook, and Salary

Transformational Leadership in Education

Bilingual Kidspot, “5 Amazing Benefits of a Bilingual Education”

Learning English, “Number of English Learners in US Schools Keeps Rising”

National Center for Education Statistics, “Digest of Education Statistics”

National Center for Education Statistics, “English Language Learners in Public Schools”

Pew Research Center, “6 Facts About English Language Learners in U.S. Public Schools”

USA Today, “More US Schools Teach in English and Spanish, But Not Enough to Help Latino Kids”

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Cultivating Bilingualism: The Benefits of Multilingual Classrooms

Child's artwork inspired by van Gogh's Starry Night

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What slows cognitive decline in old age, increases earning potential throughout adulthood, and is best started in early childhood? Learning a second (or third!) language.

For decades, educators, researchers, and policy makers across the United States engaged in heated debates about how to ensure English proficiency. Some thought that learning two languages was somehow confusing to children and detrimental to their education. Far too often, debaters showed little regard for how a child’s home language tied him to his family, community, and culture.

Thanks to new research on the cognitive, social, and economic benefits of bilingualism, that debate has largely ended. Now we can focus our energy on supporting children whose first language is not English by building on their linguistic strengths—and on harnessing those strengths to help their peers who only speak English learn a second language too.

This issue of  Young Children  takes you inside several multilingual classrooms for in-depth, practical examples of how to enhance social, emotional, scientific, language, and literacy development with children who are learning more than one language.

Child's artwork inspired by van Gogh's Starry Night

Because a strong social and emotional foundation supports all other learning, we begin with “ Paired Learning: Strategies for Enhancing Social Competence in Dual Language Classrooms ,” by Iliana Alanís and María G. Arreguín-Anderson. The authors observed teachers in preschool through first grade Spanish-English dual language classrooms; based on their observations, they share detailed accounts of highly effective ways to help children learn to cooperate and collaborate. They emphasize learning in pairs as a way to create many low-pressure opportunities for dual language learners to engage in conversations.

Child's artwork inspired by van Gogh's Sunflowers

Next, we step inside a dual language Head Start classroom where the teachers alternate the language of instruction (Spanish or English) weekly and offer multilingual supports throughout each day. Wanting to teach more science but not having enough time, the teachers join a professional development collaborative to learn how to incorporate science into their language and literacy activities. The impressive results are captured by Leanne M. Evans in “ The Power of Science: Using Inquiry Thinking to Enhance Learning in a Dual Language Preschool Classroom .” As the teachers’ new lesson plans demonstrate, “science education offers [children] discovery-oriented play, vocabulary-rich content, and abundant opportunities to explore oral and written language.”

Although dual language models are a wonderful way to cultivate bilingualism—along with biliteracy, biculturalism, and a whole new lens on the world—they are not always feasible. Many classrooms are multilingual, so teachers are seeking ways to foster first-, second-, and even third-language development (along with progress in all other domains), even when they don’t speak all of the children’s first languages.

In “ Five Tips for Engaging Multilingual Children in Conversation ,” E. Brook Chapman de Sousa offers research-based and teacher-refined strategies to take on this challenge. With examples from a preschool in which over 30 languages are spoken, Chapman de Sousa demonstrates how children benefit when their teachers “use children’s home languages as a resource; pair conversations with joint activities; coparticipate in activities; use small groups; and respond to children’s contributions.” Active listening and gesturing are key ways teachers can be responsive and communicate caring when they do not speak a child’s first language.

Cristina Gillanders and Lucinda Soltero-González help teachers craft a strengths-based instructional approach in “ Discovering How Writing Works in Different Languages: Lessons from Dual Language Learners .” This article carefully examines children’s emergent writing, with examples from prekindergarten through first grade, asking teachers to consider how a child’s knowledge of and ideas about her first language impact her writing in her second language. Teachers can then build on what the children already know and support children’s progress in both languages.

We close the cluster with “ Can We Talk? Creating Opportunities for Meaningful Academic Discussions with Multilingual Children ,” by Mary E. Bolt, Carmen M. Rodriguez, Christopher J. Wagner, and C. Patrick Proctor. Teachers and researchers together develop a structured approach for building multilingual children’s academic vocabulary, knowledge, oral language skills, and writing as they extend an existing unit on ocean animals to create far more opportunities for meaningful conversations. The authors describe how they helped the children develop the social skills, like turn taking, that are necessary for authentic discussions.

While this cluster focuses on children whose first language is not English, all children benefit from the rich, intentional, language-building instruction described in these articles.

Is your classroom full of children’s artwork? 

To feature it in  Young Children , see the link at the bottom of the page or email  [email protected]  for details.

These masterpieces, inspired by van Gogh’s  Starry Night  and  Sunflowers , were created by first and second graders in Ms. Bridget’s class at Plato Academy in Des Plaines, Illinois.

We’d love to hear from you!

Send your thoughts on this issue, as well as topics you’d like to read about in future issues of  Young Children , to  [email protected] .

Lisa Hansel, EdD, is the editor in chief of NAEYC's peer-reviewed journal, Young Children .

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Vol. 74, No. 2

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5 Million Voices

6 potential brain benefits of bilingual education.

Anya Kamenetz

Bilingual student

Part of our ongoing series exploring how the U.S. can educate the nearly 5 million students who are learning English.

Brains, brains, brains. One thing we've learned at NPR Ed is that people are fascinated by brain research. And yet it can be hard to point to places where our education system is really making use of the latest neuroscience findings.

But there is one happy nexus where research is meeting practice: bilingual education. "In the last 20 years or so, there's been a virtual explosion of research on bilingualism," says Judith Kroll, a professor at the University of California, Riverside.

Again and again, researchers have found, "bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime," in the words of Gigi Luk, an associate professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

At the same time, one of the hottest trends in public schooling is what's often called dual-language or two-way immersion programs.

5 Million Voices

How We Teach English Learners: 3 Basic Approaches

Traditional programs for English-language learners, or ELLs, focus on assimilating students into English as quickly as possible. Dual-language classrooms, by contrast, provide instruction across subjects to both English natives and English learners, in both English and in a target language.

The goal is functional bilingualism and biliteracy for all students by middle school.

New York City, North Carolina, Delaware, Utah, Oregon and Washington state are among the places expanding dual-language classrooms.

The trend flies in the face of some of the culture wars of two decades ago, when advocates insisted on "English first" education. Most famously, California passed Proposition 227 in 1998. It was intended to sharply reduce the amount of time that English-language learners spent in bilingual settings.

Proposition 58 , passed by California voters on Nov. 8, largely reversed that decision, paving the way for a huge expansion of bilingual education in the state that has the largest population of English-language learners.

Bilingual Education Returns To California. Now What?

Bilingual Education Returns To California. Now What?

Some of the insistence on English-first was founded in research produced decades ago, in which bilingual students underperformed monolingual English speakers and had lower IQ scores.

Today's scholars, like Ellen Bialystok at York University in Toronto, now say that research was "deeply flawed."

"Earlier research looked at socially disadvantaged groups," agrees Antonella Sorace at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. "This has been completely contradicted by recent research" that compares more similar groups to each other.

So what does recent research say about the potential benefits of bilingual education? NPR Ed called up seven researchers in three countries — Sorace, Bialystok, Luk, Kroll, Jennifer Steele, and the team of Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier — to find out.

It turns out that, in many ways, the real trick to speaking two languages consists in managing not to speak one of those languages at a given moment — which is fundamentally a feat of paying attention.

Saying "Goodbye" to mom and then " Guten tag " to your teacher, or managing to ask for a crayola roja instead of a red crayon, requires skills called "inhibition" and "task switching." These skills are subsets of an ability called executive function.

People who speak two languages often outperform monolinguals on general measures of executive function. "[Bilinguals] can pay focused attention without being distracted and also improve in the ability to switch from one task to another," says Sorace.

Do these same advantages accrue to a child who begins learning a second language in kindergarten instead of as a baby? We don't yet know. Patterns of language learning and language use are complex. But Gigi Luk at Harvard cites at least one brain-imaging study on adolescents that shows similar changes in brain structure when compared with those who are bilingual from birth, even when they didn't begin practicing a second language in earnest before late childhood.

Young children being raised bilingual have to follow social cues to figure out which language to use with which person and in what setting. As a result, says Sorace, bilingual children as young as age 3 have demonstrated a head start on tests of perspective-taking and theory of mind — both of which are fundamental social and emotional skills.

Reading (English)

About 10 percent of students in the Portland, Ore., public schools are assigned by lottery to dual-language classrooms that offer instruction in Spanish, Japanese or Mandarin, alongside English.

Jennifer Steele at American University conducted a four-year, randomized trial and found that these dual-language students outperformed their peers in English-reading skills by a full school year's worth of learning by the end of middle school.

Such a large effect in a study this size is unusual, and Steele is currently conducting a flurry of follow-up studies to tease out the causality: Is this about a special program that attracted families who were more engaged? Or about the dual-language instruction itself?

"If it's just about moving the kids around," Steele says, "that's not as exciting as if it's a way of teaching that makes you smarter."

'Invisible' Children: Raised In The U.S., Now Struggling In Mexico

'Invisible' Children: Raised In The U.S., Now Struggling In Mexico

Steele suspects the latter. Because the effects are found in reading, not in math or science where there were few differences, she suggests that learning two languages makes students more aware of how language works in general, aka "metalinguistic awareness."

The research of Gigi Luk at Harvard offers a slightly different explanation. She has recently done a small study looking at a group of 100 fourth-graders in Massachusetts who had similar reading scores on a standard test, but very different language experiences.

Some were foreign-language dominant and others were English natives. Here's what's interesting. The students who were dominant in a foreign language weren't yet comfortably bilingual; they were just starting to learn English. Therefore, by definition, they had much weaker English vocabularies than the native speakers.

Yet they were just as good at decoding a text.

"This is very surprising," Luk says. "You would expect the reading comprehension performance to mirror vocabulary — it's a cornerstone of comprehension."

How did the foreign-language dominant speakers manage this feat? Well, Luk found, they also scored higher on tests of executive functioning. So, even though they didn't have huge mental dictionaries to draw on, they may have been great puzzle-solvers, taking into account higher-level concepts such as whether a single sentence made sense within an overall story line.

They got to the same results as the monolinguals, by a different path.

School performance and engagement.

Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier, a husband and wife team of professors emeritus at George Mason University in Virginia, have spent the past 30 years collecting evidence on the benefits of bilingual education.

"Wayne came to our research with skepticism, thinking students ought to get instruction all day in English," says Virginia Collier. "Eight million student records later, we're convinced," Wayne Thomas chimes in.

In studies covering six states and 37 districts, they have found that, compared with students in English-only classrooms or in one-way immersion, dual-language students have somewhat higher test scores and also seem to be happier in school. Attendance is better, behavioral problems fewer, parent involvement higher.

Diversity and integration.

American public school classrooms as a whole are becoming more segregated by race and class. Dual-language programs can be an exception. Because they are composed of native English speakers deliberately placed together with recent immigrants, they tend to be more ethnically and socioeconomically balanced. And there is some evidence that this helps kids of all backgrounds gain comfort with diversity and different cultures.

Several of the researchers I talked with also pointed out that, in bilingual education, non-English-dominant students and their families tend to feel that their home language is heard and valued, compared with a classroom where the home language is left at the door in favor of English.

This can improve students' sense of belonging and increase parent involvement in their children's education, including behaviors like reading to children.

"Many parents fear their language is an obstacle, a problem, and if they abandon it their child will integrate better," says Antonella Sorace of the University of Edinburgh. "We tell them they're not doing their child a favor by giving up their language."

Protection against cognitive decline and dementia.

File this away as a very, very long-range payoff. Researchers have found that actively using two languages seems to have a protective effect against age-related dementia — perhaps relating to the changes in brain structure we talked about earlier.

Specifically, among patients with Alzheimer's in a Canadian study, a group of bilingual adults performed on par with a group of monolingual adults in terms of cognitive tests and daily functioning. But when researchers looked at the two groups' brains, they found evidence of brain atrophy that was five to seven years more advanced in the bilingual group. In other words, the adults who spoke two languages were carrying on longer at a higher level despite greater degrees of damage.

The coda, and a caution

One theme that was striking in speaking to all these researchers was just how strongly they advocated for dual-language classrooms.

Thomas and Collier have advised many school systems on how to expand their dual-language programs, and Sorace runs " Bilingualism Matters ," an international network of researchers who promote bilingual education projects.

This type of advocacy among scientists is unusual; even more so because the "bilingual advantage hypothesis" is being challenged once again. A review of studies published last year found that cognitive advantages failed to appear in 83 percent of published studies, though in a separate meta-analysis, the sum of effects was still significantly positive.

One potential explanation offered by the researchers I spoke with is that advantages that are measurable in the very young and very old tend to fade when testing young adults at the peak of their cognitive powers.

And, they countered that no negative effects of bilingual education have been found. So, they argue that even if the advantages are small, they are still worth it.

Not to mention one obvious, outstanding fact underlined by many of these researchers: "Bilingual children can speak two languages! That's amazing," says Bialystok.

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Highlighting the Benefits of Being Bilingual 

By pointing out the benefits of bilingualism, teachers can give students learning English a boost in confidence.

Photo of middle school teacher and students

Three years ago, I had a hardworking student in my class whom I’ll call Jose. As I connected with him, I was glad to learn more about his past and found out that he had immigrated with his family to the United States from Mexico a couple of years prior. At parents’ night, Jose’s mother spoke to him in Spanish, which surprised me as he never spoke Spanish at school and had previously told me that he only spoke English.

The next day, I pulled Jose aside and asked him about his speaking Spanish with his mother. With his head hung low, he explained that he was ashamed of speaking Spanish because he wanted to be “more American.” My heart broke for him, and throughout the course of that year, it became one of my teacher missions to show Jose that the ability to speak two languages is a great asset.

Sadly, Jose’s story is not unique. As educators, it’s our responsibility to show bilingual students that the ability to speak two languages is a great gift. Bilingualism is an incredible skill—it can lead to stronger brain functioning, higher incomes, and positive health impacts. In many ways, bilingualism is a superpower. There’s so much research showing the significant benefits of speaking two languages, and it’s important to empower students by sharing this information with them.

Benefits of Bilingualism

Bilingualism makes executive functioning skills stronger. Researchers at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan studied brain scans of bilingual and monolingual individuals. They found that people who are bilingual have significantly more gray matter in the portion of their brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is one of the portions of the brain involved in executive functioning. 

People who are bilingual are consistently switching between languages and interpreting which language needs to be used at which time; this is brain exercise, which leads to the strengthening of this portion of the brain muscle. Researchers conclude that by having more gray matter in this portion of the brain, people who are bilingual may have an easier time with executive functions, including decision-making, motivation, and emotional regulation . 

Bilingualism makes people better at multitasking. People who are bilingual are multitasking without thinking about it. As a person’s brain transitions from one language to another, they are processing information and shifting between languages at the same time. 

Research shows that the ability to multitask linguistically translates to an ability to multitask in other areas of a person’s life because it strengthens the executive functioning skills in the brain. Researchers conducted a study looking at whether or not elementary school students could multitask; in this study, researchers had students perform multiple different types of tasks, and they found that bilingual students outperformed monolingual students on tasks that required students to multitask.

Bilingualism can increase math and reading performance. Several studies have shown a correlation between bilingualism and stronger mathematical abilities in students. In a large study of pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade students, bilingual students outperformed monolingual students in mathematical reasoning, mathematical skills on word problems, and early number awareness skills. 

Along with increased math performance, there is also conjecture that bilingualism can increase students’ reading abilities. 

American University conducted a four-year study of Portland Public School students, comparing the academics of students enrolled in dual-language programs with those of students enrolled in traditional public schools. Students were enrolled into these two types of programs at random, and it was found that by the end of middle school, students in dual-language programs were performing one grade level higher on reading assessments than their peers who were not enrolled in these programs. 

Bilingualism increases earning potential and job opportunities. Research shows that employers from all career fields prefer to hire bilingual employees . Research also shows that among the millennial generation, bilingual employees earn more on average than their monolingual counterparts. It’s been reported that bilingual employees earn on average between 5 percent and 20 percent more than their monolingual peers .

Bilingualism can prevent negative effects of disease and brain injury. In recent years, a number of studies have been published looking at the impacts of bilingualism on human health. Many of these studies have surprising results showing the protection that bilingualism can provide to the brain. 

A study from York University found that people who are bilingual have delayed symptoms after a diagnosis of dementia; while bilingualism didn’t stop a person’s dementia, people who were bilingual exhibited symptoms approximately four years later than people who were monolingual with the same disease pathology. Another study that specifically looked at the impact of bilingualism on Alzheimer’s disease found that bilingual people with the disease had symptom onset four to five years later than people who were monolingual.

Another research study examined stroke patients and looked at the different outcomes for bilingual and monolingual patients. The study found that people who were bilingual were more than twice as likely to recover their cognitive functioning skills as people who spoke only one language.

In these studies, researchers concluded that people who are bilingual have a larger cognitive reserve than people who are monolingual due to the more advanced executive functioning skills in their brains that result from continual language switching. Researchers believe that this cognitive reserve allows bilingual individuals a greater ability to compensate in the case of brain injury or illness.

Three weeks ago, I saw Jose in the hallway at school. He was giving a campus tour to a new student who had just immigrated from Oaxaca, Mexico. Jose was speaking with the other student in Spanish as he explained where the new student’s classrooms were located. I am proud to share that today he’s embracing his Spanish language skills and serves as a mentor for others. He now knows that bilingualism is one of his many superpowers.

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The amazing benefits of being bilingual

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From Mosaic

In a cafe in south London, two construction workers are engaged in cheerful banter, tossing words back and forth. Their cutlery dances during more emphatic gesticulations and they occasionally break off into loud guffaws. They are discussing a woman, that much is clear, but the details are lost on me. It’s a shame, because their conversation looks fun and interesting, especially to a nosy person like me. But I don’t speak their language.

Out of curiosity, I interrupt them to ask what they are speaking. With friendly smiles, they both switch easily to English, explaining that they are South Africans and had been speaking Xhosa. In Johannesburg, where they are from, most people speak at least five languages, says one of them, Theo Morris. For example, Theo’s mother’s language is Sotho, his father’s is Zulu, he learned Xhosa and Ndebele from his friends and neighbours, and English and Afrikaans at school. “I went to Germany before I came here, so I also speak German,” he adds.

Was it easy to learn so many languages?

“Yes, it’s normal,” he laughs.

He’s right. Around the world, more than half of people – estimates vary from 60 to 75 per cent – speak at least two languages. Many countries have more than one official national language – South Africa has 11. People are increasingly expected to speak, read and write at least one of a handful of “super” languages, such as English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish or Arabic, as well. So to be monolingual, as many native English speakers are, is to be in the minority, and perhaps to be missing out.

Multilingualism has been shown to have many social, psychological and lifestyle advantages. Moreover, researchers are finding a swathe of health benefits from speaking more than one language, including faster stroke recovery and delayed onset of dementia.

At the current rate, half our languages will be extinct by the end of the century

Could it be that the human brain evolved to be multilingual – that those who speak only one language are not exploiting their full potential? And in a world that is losing languages faster than ever – at the current rate of one a fortnight, half our languages will be extinct by the end of the century – what will happen if the current rich diversity of languages disappears and most of us end up speaking only one?

As adults, we try desperately to decipher a foreign tongue - but we may learn quicker if we stop looking for patterns that aren't there (Credit: Getty Images)

As adults, we try desperately to decipher a foreign tongue - but we may learn quicker if we stop looking for patterns that aren't there (Credit: Getty Images)

I am sitting in a laboratory, headphones on, looking at pictures of snowflakes on a computer. As each pair of snowflakes appears, I hear a description of one of them through the headphones. All I have to do is decide which snowflake is being described. The only catch is that the descriptions are in a completely invented language called Syntaflake.

It’s part of an experiment by Panos Athanasopoulos, an ebullient Greek with a passion for languages. Professor of psycholinguistics and bilingual cognition at Lancaster University, he’s at the forefront of a new wave of research into the bilingual mind. As you might expect, his lab is a Babel of different nationalities and languages – but no one here grew up speaking Syntaflake.

The task is profoundly strange and incredibly difficult. Usually, when interacting in a foreign language, there are clues to help you decipher the meaning. The speaker might point to the snowflake as they speak, use their hands to demonstrate shapes or their fingers to count out numbers, for example. Here I have no such clues and, it being a made-up language, I can’t even rely on picking up similarities to languages I already know.

After a time, though, I begin to feel a pattern might be emerging with the syntax and sounds. I decide to be mathematical about it and get out pen and paper to plot any rules that emerge, determined not to “fail” the test.

The experience reminds me of a time I arrived in a rural town a few hours outside Beijing and was forced to make myself understood in a language I could neither speak nor read, among people for whom English was similarly alien. But even then, there had been clues… Now, without any accompanying human interaction, the rules governing the sounds I’m hearing remain elusive, and at the end of the session I have to admit defeat.

I join Athanasopoulos for a chat while my performance is being analysed by his team.

Glumly, I recount my difficulties at learning the language, despite my best efforts. But it appears that was where I went wrong: “The people who perform best on this task are the ones who don’t care at all about the task and just want to get it over as soon as possible. Students and teaching staff who try to work it out and find a pattern always do worst,” he says.

“It’s impossible in the time given to decipher the rules of the language and make sense of what’s being said to you. But your brain is primed to work it out subconsciously. That’s why, if you don’t think about it, you’ll do okay in the test – children do the best.”

Language is intimately connected to culture and politics (Credit: Getty Images)

Language is intimately connected to culture and politics (Credit: Getty Images)

The first words ever uttered may have been as far back as 250,000 years ago, once our ancestors stood up on two legs and freed the ribcage from weight-bearing tasks, allowing fine nerve control of breathing and pitch to develop. And when humans had got one language, it wouldn’t have been long before we had many.

Language evolution can be compared to biological evolution, but whereas genetic change is driven by environmental pressures, languages change and develop through social pressures. Over time, different groups of early humans would have found themselves speaking different languages. Then, in order to communicate with other groups – for trade, travel and so on – it would have been necessary for some members of a family or band to speak other tongues.

We can get some sense of how prevalent multilingualism may have been from the few hunter-gatherer peoples who survive today. “If you look at modern hunter-gatherers, they are almost all multilingual,” says Thomas Bak, a cognitive neurologist who studies the science of languages at the University of Edinburgh. “The rule is that one mustn’t marry anyone in the same tribe or clan to have a child – it’s taboo. So every single child’s mum and dad speak a different language.”

In Aboriginal Australia, where more than 130 indigenous languages are still spoken, multilingualism is part of the landscape. “You will be walking and talking with someone, and then you might cross a small river and suddenly your companion will switch to another language,” says Bak. “People speak the language of the earth.” This is true elsewhere, too. “Consider in Belgium: you take a train in Liège, the announcements are in French first. Then, pass through Loewen, where the announcements will be in Dutch first, and then in Brussels it reverts back to French first.”

The connection with culture and geography is why Athanasopoulos invented a new language for the snowflake test. Part of his research lies in trying to tease out the language from the culture it is threaded within, he explains.

Being so bound up with identity, language is also deeply political. The emergence of European nation states and the growth of imperialism during the 19th century meant it was regarded as disloyal to speak anything other than the one national language. This perhaps contributed to the widely held opinion – particularly in Britain and the US – that bringing up children to be bilingual was harmful to their health and to society more generally.

There were warnings that bilingual children would be confused by two languages, have lower intelligence and behave in deviant ways

There were warnings that bilingual children would be confused by two languages, have lower intelligence, low self-esteem, behave in deviant ways, develop a split personality and even become schizophrenic. It is a view that persisted until very recently, discouraging many immigrant parents from using their own mother tongue to speak to their children, for instance. This is in spite of a 1962 experiment, ignored for decades, which showed that bilingual children did better than monolinguals in both verbal and non-verbal intelligence tests.

However, research in the last decade by neurologists, psychologists and linguists, using the latest brain-imaging tools, is revealing a swathe of cognitive benefits for bilinguals. It’s all to do with how our ever-flexible minds learn to multitask.

Split personality

Ask me in English what my favourite food is, and I will picture myself in London choosing from the options I enjoy there. But ask me in French, and I transport myself to Paris, where the options I’ll choose from are different. So the same deeply personal question gets a different answer depending on the language in which you’re asking me. This idea that you gain a new personality with every language you speak, that you act differently when speaking different languages, is a profound one.

Athanasopoulos and his colleagues have been studying the capacity for language to change people’s perspectives. In one experiment, English and German speakers were shown videos of people moving, such as a woman walking towards her car or a man cycling to the supermarket. English speakers focus on the action and typically describe the scene as “a woman is walking” or “a man is cycling”. German speakers, on the other hand, have a more holistic worldview and will include the goal of the action: they might say (in German) “a woman walks towards her car” or “a man cycles towards the supermarket”.

Part of this is due to the grammatical toolkit available, Athanasopoulos explains. Unlike German, English has the -ing ending to describe actions that are ongoing. This makes English speakers much less likely than German speakers to assign a goal to an action when describing an ambiguous scene. When he tested English–German bilinguals, however, whether they were action- or goal-focused depended on which country they were tested in. If the bilinguals were tested in Germany, they were goal-focused; in England, they were action-focused, no matter which language was used, showing how intertwined culture and language can be in determining a person’s worldview.

In the 1960s, one of the pioneers of psycholinguistics, Susan Ervin-Tripp, tested Japanese–English bilingual women, asking them to finish sentences in each language. She found that the women ended the sentences very differently depending on which language was used. For example, “When my wishes conflict with my family…” was completed in Japanese as “it is a time of great unhappiness”; in English, as “I do what I want”. Another example was “Real friends should…”, which was completed as “help each other” in Japanese and “be frank” in English.

Many bilinguals say they feel like a different person when they speak their other language

From this, Ervin-Tripp concluded that human thought takes place within language mindsets, and that bilinguals have different mindsets for each language – an extraordinary idea but one that has been borne out in subsequent studies, and many bilinguals say they feel like a different person when they speak their other language.

These different mindsets are continually in conflict, however, as bilingual brains sort out which language to use.

In a revealing experiment with his English-German bilingual group, Athanasopoulos got them to recite strings of numbers out loud in either German or English. This effectively “blocked” the other language altogether, and when they were shown the videos of movement, the bilinguals’ descriptions were more action- or goal-focused depending on which language had been blocked.

How to learn 30 languages

So-called "hyper-polyglots", like Alex Rawlings mentioned in this story, have learnt to speak at least 10 languages. They claim that anyone could learn their skills if only you take the right approach. To learn more, read our in-depth feature article here .

Searching for a word in one language - while suppressing the corresponding word in another - gently taxes the brain, helping to train our concentration (Credit: Getty Images)

Searching for a word in one language - while suppressing the corresponding word in another - gently taxes the brain, helping to train our concentration (Credit: Getty Images)

So what’s going on? Are there really two separate minds in a bilingual brain? That’s what the snowflake experiment was designed to find out. I’m a little nervous of what my fumbling performance will reveal about me, but Athanasopoulos assures me I’m similar to others who have been tested – and so far, we seem to be validating his theory.

In order to assess the effect that trying to understand the Syntaflake language had on my brain, I took another test before and after the snowflake task. In these so-called flanker tasks , patterns of arrows appeared on the screen and I had to press the left or right button according to the direction of the arrow in the centre. Sometimes the surrounding pattern of arrows was confusing, so by the end of the first session my shoulders had been hunched somewhere near my ears and I was exhausted from concentrating. It’s not a task in which practice improves performance (most people actually do worse second time round), but when I did the same test again after completing the snowflake task, I was significantly better at it, just as Athanasopoulos has predicted.

“Learning the new language improved your performance second time around,” he explains. Relieved as I am to fit into the normal range, it’s a curious result. How can that be?

The flanker tasks were exercises in cognitive conflict resolution – if most of the arrows were pointing to the left, my immediate impulse was to push the left button, but this wasn’t the correct response if the central arrow was pointing right. I had to block out my impulse and heed the rule instead. Another example of cognitive conflict is a test in which the names of colours are written in different colours (“blue” written in red, for example). The aim is to say which colour each word is written in, but this is tricky, because we read the word much quicker than we process the colour of the letters. It requires considerable mental effort to ignore the impulse just to say the word we can’t help but read.

The part of the brain that manages this supreme effort is known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), part of the “executive system”. Located on the frontal lobe, it is a toolbox of mental attention skills that enables us to concentrate on one task while blocking out competing information, and allows us to switch focus between different tasks without becoming confused. It is the executive system that tells us to go when we see a green light and stop for a red, and it is the same system that tells us to ignore the meaning of the word we read but concentrate on the colour of the letters.

The snowflake test prepared my ACC for the second flanker task, just as speaking more than one language seems to train the executive system more generally. A steady stream of studies over the past decade has shown that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in a range of cognitive and social tasks from verbal and nonverbal tests to how well they can read other people. Greater empathy is thought to be because bilinguals are better at blocking out their own feelings and beliefs in order to concentrate on the other person’s.

“Bilinguals perform these tasks much better than monolinguals – they are faster and more accurate,” says Athanasopoulos. And that suggests their executive systems are different from monolinguals’.

Mental muscles

In fact, says cognitive neuropsychologist Jubin Abutalebi, at the University of San Raffaele in Milan, it is possible to distinguish bilingual people from monolinguals simply by looking at scans of their brains. “Bilingual people have significantly more grey matter than monolinguals in their anterior cingulate cortex, and that is because they are using it so much more often,” he says. The ACC is like a cognitive muscle, he adds: the more you use it, the stronger, bigger and more flexible it gets.

Bilinguals, it turns out, exercise their executive control all the time because their two languages are constantly competing for attention. Brain-imaging studies show that when a bilingual person is speaking in one language, their ACC is continually suppressing the urge to use words and grammar from their other language. Not only that, but their mind is always making a judgement about when and how to use the target language. For example, bilinguals rarely get confused between languages, but they may introduce the odd word or sentence of the other language if the person they are talking to also knows it.

“My mother tongue is Polish but my wife is Spanish so I also speak Spanish, and we live in Edinburgh so we also speak English,” says Thomas Bak. “When I am talking to my wife in English, I will sometimes use Spanish words, but I never accidentally use Polish. And when I am speaking to my wife’s mother in Spanish, I never accidentally introduce English words because she doesn’t understand them. It’s not something I have to think about, it’s automatic, but my executive system is working very hard to inhibit the other languages.”

For bilinguals, with their exceptionally buff executive control, the flanker test is just a conscious version of what their brains do subconsciously all day long – it’s no wonder they are good at it.

Speaking a second language can help forestall the symptoms of dementia (Credit: Getty Images)

Speaking a second language can help forestall the symptoms of dementia (Credit: Getty Images)

A superior ability to concentrate, solve problems and focus, better mental flexibility and multitasking skills are, of course, valuable in everyday life. But perhaps the most exciting benefit of bilingualism occurs in ageing, when executive function typically declines: bilingualism seems to protect against dementia.

Psycholinguist Ellen Bialystok made the surprising discovery at York University in Toronto while she was comparing an ageing population of monolinguals and bilinguals.

“The bilinguals showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s some four to five years after monolinguals with the same disease pathology,” she says.

Being bilingual didn’t prevent people from getting dementia, but it delayed its effects , so in two people whose brains showed similar amounts of disease progression, the bilingual would show symptoms an average of five years after the monolingual. Bialystok thinks this is because bilingualism rewires the brain and improves the executive system, boosting people’s “cognitive reserve”. It means that as parts of the brain succumb to damage, bilinguals can compensate more because they have extra grey matter and alternative neural pathways.

“Bilinguals use their frontal processors for tasks that monolinguals don’t and so these processors become reinforced and better in the frontal lobe. And this is used to compensate during degeneration of the middle parts of the brain,” Bialystok explains. However, it is no good simply to have learned a little French at school. The effect depends on how often you use your bilingual skill. “The more you use it, the better,” she says, “but there’s no breaking point, it’s a continuum.”

Bilingualism can also offer protection after brain injury. In a recent study of 600 stroke survivors in India, Bak discovered that cognitive recovery was twice as likely for bilinguals as for monolinguals.

Such results suggest bilingualism helps keep us mentally fit. It may even be an advantage that evolution has positively selected for in our brains – an idea supported by the ease with which we learn new languages and flip between them, and by the pervasiveness of bilingualism throughout world history. Just as we need to do physical exercise to maintain the health of bodies that evolved for a physically active hunter-gatherer lifestyle, perhaps we ought to start doing more cognitive exercises to maintain our mental health, especially if we only speak one language.

In recent years, there has been a backlash against the studies showing benefits from bilingualism. Some researchers tried and failed to replicate some of the results; others questioned the benefits of improved executive function in everyday life. Bak wrote a rejoinder to the published criticisms, and says there is now overwhelming evidence from psychological experiments backed by imaging studies that bilingual and monolingual brains function differently. He says the detractors have made errors in their experimental methods.

One estimate puts the value of knowing a second language at up to $128,000 over 40 years

Bialystok agrees, adding that it is impossible to examine whether bilingualism improves a child’s school exam results because there are so many confounding factors. But, she says, “given that at the very least it makes no difference – and no study has ever shown it harms performance – considering the very many social and cultural benefits to knowing another language, bilingualism should be encouraged”. As for the financial benefits, one estimate puts the value of knowing a second language at up to $128,000 over 40 years.

Immersing children in a second language may help benefit their performance in all subjects (Credit: Getty Images)

Immersing children in a second language may help benefit their performance in all subjects (Credit: Getty Images)

The result of my test in Athanasopoulos’s lab suggests that just 45 minutes of trying to understand another language can improve cognitive function. His study is not yet complete, but other research has shown that these benefits of learning a language can be achieved quickly. The problem is, they disappear again unless they are used – and I am unlikely to use the made-up snowflake language ever again! Learning a new language is not the only way to improve executive function – playing video games, learning a musical instrument, even certain card games can help – but because we use language all the time, it’s probably the best executive-function exerciser there is. So how can this knowledge be applied in practice?

One option is to teach children in different languages. In many parts of the world, this is already being done: many Indian children, for example, will use a different language in school from their mother or village tongue. But in English-speaking nations, it is rare. Nevertheless, there is a growing movement towards so-called immersion schooling, in which children are taught in another language half the time. The state of Utah has been pioneering the idea, with many of its schools now offering immersion in Mandarin Chinese or Spanish.

“We use a half-day model, so the target language is used to teach in the morning, and then English is used in the afternoon – then this is swapped on other days as some learn better in the morning and some in the afternoon,” explains Gregg Roberts , who works with the Utah Office of State Education and has championed immersion language teaching in the state. “We have found that the kids do as well and generally better than monolingual counterparts in all subjects. They are better at concentrating, focusing and have a lot more self-esteem. Anytime you understand another language, you understand your language and culture better. It is economically and socially beneficial. We need to get over our affliction with monolingualism.”

The immersion approach is being trialled in the UK now, too. At Bohunt secondary school in Liphook, Hampshire, head teacher Neil Strowger has introduced Chinese-language immersion for a few lessons.

Immersing yourself in a new language and culture may open your mind to new ways of thinking (Credit: Getty Images)

Immersing yourself in a new language and culture may open your mind to new ways of thinking (Credit: Getty Images)

I sit in on an art class with 12-year-olds being taught by two teachers: one speaking English, the other Chinese. The children are engaged but quiet, concentrating on the task of learning multiple ideas. When they speak it is often in Chinese – and there is something rather surreal about watching young people in the UK discussing British graffiti artist Banksy in Mandarin. The children say they chose to learn in Chinese because they thought it would be “fun” and “interesting” and “useful” – a far cry from the dreary French lessons I endured at school.

The majority of the art class will take their Chinese GCSE exams several years early but Strowger tells me the programme has had many benefits in addition to their grades, including improving students’ engagement and enjoyment, increasing their awareness of other cultures so that they are equipped as global citizens, widening their horizons, and improving their job prospects.

What about those of us who have left school? In order to maintain the benefits of bilingualism, you need to use your languages and that can be tricky, especially for older people who may not have many opportunities to practise. Perhaps we need language clubs, where people can meet to speak other languages. Bak has done a small pilot study with elderly people learning Gaelic in Scotland and seen significant benefits after just one week. Now he aims to carry out a much larger trial.

It is never too late to learn another tongue, and it can be very rewarding. Alex Rawlings is a British professional polyglot who speaks 15 languages: “Each language gives you a whole new lifestyle, a whole new shade of meaning,” he says. “It’s addictive!”

“People say it’s too hard as an adult. But I would say it’s much easier after the age of eight. It takes three years for a baby to learn a language, but just months for an adult.”

As the recent research shows, that’s a worthwhile investment of time. Being bilingual could keep our minds working longer and better into old age, which could have a massive impact on how we school our children and treat older people. In the meantime, it makes sense to talk, hablar , parler , sprechen , beszel, berbicara in as many languages as you can.

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence .

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bilingual education benefits essay

Home — Essay Samples — Science — Bilingualism — The Advantages and Limitations of Bilingualism

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The Advantages and Limitations of Bilingualism

  • Categories: Bilingualism Language

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Words: 1790 |

Published: May 17, 2022

Words: 1790 | Pages: 4 | 9 min read

Works Cited

  • Barac, R., & Bialystok, E. (2012). Bilingual effects on cognitive and linguistic development: Role of language, cultural background, and education. Child Development, 83(2), 413-422.
  • Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(4), 240-250.
  • Bialystok, E., & Viswanathan, M. (2009). Components of executive control with advantages for bilingual children in two cultures. Cognition, 112(3), 494-500.
  • Cummins, J. (2012). Bilingualism and second language acquisition. In N. H. Hornberger (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education (Vol. 5, pp. 59-71). Springer.
  • Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-168.
  • Kaushanskaya, M., & Marian, V. (2009). Bilingualism reduces native-language interference during novel-word learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35(3), 829-835.
  • Luk, G., & Bialystok, E. (2013). Bilingualism is not a categorical variable: Interaction between language proficiency and usage. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 25(5), 605-621.
  • Marian, V., Blumenfeld, H. K., & Kaushanskaya, M. (2007). The language experience and proficiency questionnaire (LEAP-Q): Assessing language profiles in bilinguals and multilinguals. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 50(4), 940-967.
  • Peal, E., & Lambert, W. E. (1962). The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 76(27), 1-23.
  • Portocarrero, J. S., Burright, R. G., & Donovick, P. J. (2007). Vocabulary and verbal fluency of bilingual and monolingual college students. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, 22(3), 415-422.

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bilingual education benefits essay

Home / Essay Samples / Science / Bilingualism / The Benefits Of Bilingual Education

The Benefits Of Bilingual Education

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  • Topic: Bilingualism , Second Language

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