The Advantages of Being Bilingual

I’ve been around long enough to remember the prominent and divisive debates about bilingual education and whether or not English should be the only language of instruction in U.S. schools. Some of the arguments — both for and against — were as steeped in ideology as they were in fact, but that is often the case with issues that hit folks at the core of what they think should and shouldn’t be. Things have simmered down a bit and it seems that discourse around bilingualism tends to be more about research demonstrating the advantages bilinguals have over monolinguals.

In recent years, dual immersion programs have grown in popularity in the U.S. In these schools, native English speakers learn a target language (e.g., Spanish or Chinese) alongside classmates who speak the target language and are learning English. In fact, dual immersion schools often have waiting lists for enrollment. Apparently, the number of parents who want their children to be bilingual and biliterate exceeds the current capacity of dual immersion schools.

Worldwide, the number of bilingual individuals is steadily growing because of increased economic globalization and migration. Nearly 66% of the world is bilingual, and many of those individuals speak more than two languages. In the United States, the number children between the ages of 5 and 17 years old who speak a language other than English at home exceeds 20%.

Bilingual students in the U.S. are not necessarily biliterate. There are obvious advantages to being able to speak other languages but it’s even more of a plus to be able to read, write, speak, and understand more than one language. A movement is growing in the U.S. to encourage, recognize, and affirm biliteracy through the Seal of Biliteracy, an award given by a school, district, or county office of education to students who have studied and attained proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation. Currently, seventeen states have approved the seal and it being considered by others.

In school settings, there are a number of cognitive and academic benefits of bilingualism. Some include:

  • Teaching academic skills, such as reading, in a child’s home language is more effective for second language achievement than simply being immersed in English instruction. So, time spent in high-quality native language literacy instruction may speed up English proficiency in the long run.
  • Switching between languages tends to build cognitive flexibility, and bilinguals’ ability to read and think in two languages promotes higher levels of abstract thinking.
  • Having greater capacity for attention and task-switching which are critical skills in schooling.
  • Understanding math concepts and solving word problems more easily.
  • Developing strong thinking skills, including metacognitive capacities for thinking about language and learning other languages.
  • Being better able to focus, remember, and make decisions.

There are also social-emotional benefits to bilingualism. Some include:

  • Developing of a person’s sense of self is enhanced when she is able to communicate effectively with multigenerational family members, friends, and others in her cultural community.
  • Making friends and exploring a culture more deeply is made possible with the ability to talk to others and gain an understanding of their values and perspectives.
  • Learning a second language typically contributes to empathy toward limited-English speakers encountered in day-to-day situations. Knowing firsthand how difficult it is to reach native-like fluency in a new language adds an element of understanding towards English learners.

As you can see, the benefits of bilingualism extend beyond the classroom. Advantages begin in early childhood and continue across the lifespan. In fact, bilingualism has been found to delay cognitive decline  in older individuals. So, it seems that bilingualism offers something for every age group.


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