Language feeds our brains, frames our thoughts, and enables complex communication. The words, expressions, and peculiarities unique to our language broadly define how we see and understand the world.
We live in a moment of our evolution that is more multilingual and multicultural than ever. In an era of borderless communications and global travel, it seems almost archaic to be limited to just one language. But does being bilingual — or even multilingual open the world for us? Can it make economies more successful, help us earn better wages, and maybe even lead happier lives?
Bilingual education is the instruction of two languages and the use of both as a means for the entire curriculum. At the Downtown Doral Charter school in Miami, Florida, students choose between two languages: Spanish or Portuguese. When developing a bilingual curriculum, it is essential to include grammar, reading, and writing skills. To achieve true bilingualism, students must also receive math, science, and social studies classes in a foreign language. Including the study of culture, traditions and customs are vital to help students understand the origin of the language. Besides, practical experiences such as travel, exchange, and participation in cultural events help to improve the program, creating a more tangible representation of culture and language.
Studies show that the earlier a child is exposed to a second language, the greater the likelihood of gaining proficiency. Recent studies also show that students in bilingual education programs outperform their peers in focus, attention, and reading. In a study covering six states and 37 districts in the United States, researchers found that, compared to students in English-only classrooms or unidirectional immersion, students of two languages get higher grades on tests and also seem to be happier at school. Classroom participation is better, behavioral problems are less, and parental involvement is greater.
HOW A BILINGUAL BRAIN WORKS
Over the past 20 years, there has been an explosion of research on bilingualism. Each day, researchers reinforce that “bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for life ‘’ ’words by Gigi Luk, associate professor at Harvard School of Education.
Babies raised in bilingual homes show brain activity associated with executive functioning since the age of eleven months. Using brain images, the researchers analyzed how certain regions respond to sounds in Spanish and English. The prefrontal cortex and frontal orbit (two areas of the frontal lobe) showed more intense responses in bilingual babies than those who only heard and spoke one language.
Other studies have shown that the gray matter is denser in the lower-left parietal regions of the cerebral cortex in people who speak two languages. Also, bilingualism is associated with better maintenance of white matter during aging. “In general, bilinguals have developed different brain regions to perform tasks in addition to those used by monolinguals”, summarizes Bialystok. What remains a mystery is how these changes in the brain’s “wiring” improve the performance and cognitive reserve of people who speak two languages. Another enigma of these privileged minds.
THE BENEFITS OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION
There are findings that bilingual people have more advanced cognitive skills than those who speak only one language. Besides, they develop multicultural skills to thrive in an increasingly diverse society. It has also been shown that studying languages prevents senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. For children living in other countries, bilingual education connects them with their heritage and family.
Often, when a student is prevented from developing his or her first language, ties are broken with his family in his country of origin. Bilingualism helps to overcome this generational divide.
Bilingualism extends a child’s cognitive control, allowing for improvements in subjects such as science, improvements in problem-solving skills, and increased spatial skills. Bilingual education paves the way for the future, offering better job opportunities, and preparing them for life in our diverse society.
TRUTHS AND MYTHS ABOUT BILINGUAL EDUCATION
Myth: Exposing babies and young children to more than one language can cause delays in speech or language development.
Fact: The milestones of pre-language development are the same in all languages. Like other children, most bilingual children speak their first words at around 10–14 months (example: mommy, daddy). At two years old, most bilingual children can use two-word phrases (for example my ball). These are the same developmental milestones for children who learn only one language. A bilingual child can mix parts of a word from one language with parts of another. While this can make understanding difficult, it is not a reflection of abnormal or delayed development. The total number of words (the sum of the words of the two languages that the child is learning) must be comparable to the number used by a child of the same age who speaks only one language.
Myth: Speaking two languages can disturb your child’s speech or language.
Fact: If a bilingual child has speech problems, it will appear in both languages. However, these problems are not caused by learning two languages, but other cognitive aspects. Bilingualism should not be used as an explanation for speech or language disorders.
Myth: Learning two languages will confuse your child.
Fact: Some bilingual children can mix grammar rules from time to time, or they can use words from both languages in the same sentence (ie “I want more juice”). This is a normal part of bilingual language development and does not mean that your child is confused. Usually, at 4 years of age, children start to separate the different languages, but they can still mix some words. After a while, they will finally learn to separate the two languages correctly.
Myth: Children with speech or language processing disorders may find it more difficult to learn a second language.
Fact: Children with speech and language disorders may find it more difficult to learn a second language, but research shows that many can do it successfully.
Myth: Bilingual children will have academic problems.
Fact: The school environment that best suits bilingual children depends on the child’s age. Immersion in an English-speaking classroom is the best approach for younger children, but less effective for older students. For example, high school children would be better able to obtain instructions in the language they know while learning English. The research shows many academic advantages of being bilingual, including superior problem solving and multitasking skills, as well as greater cognitive flexibility.
Myth: If a person does not learn a second language when he is young, he will never be fluent.
Fact: Although the ideal window for language learning is during the first years of life (the fastest period of human brain development), children, young people, and adults can become fluent in a second language, regardless of age who start their studies.
Myth: If a child is not equally fluent in both languages, he is not truly bilingual.
Fact: Many bilingual people have a dominant language, which can change over time, depending on how often you use it. Just because someone is not equally fluent in both languages, it doesn’t mean they are not bilingual. Regular use and practice of verbal communication, along with writing and reading, will help children and adults maintain their second language in the long run.
But with so many advantages of being bilingual, why don’t some people still believe in bilingualism?
There are controversies around bilingual education and programs to serve students from linguistic minorities, in Brazil and worldwide. The idea is complex and intriguing for many, inside and outside the community of professional educators. The most recent research aims to understand the issues surrounding language teaching, placing aspects of the controversy in broad categories: language issues, cultural issues, and academic program issues. Important legal and political issues also arise from these concerns and opinions differ on the best approach to such education.
I see nothing wrong with the logic of bilingual education, nor do I have reservations about the strength of pedagogy. Unfortunately, as programs are imposed externally, they do not receive general acceptance from the educational community. Bilingual programs are often implemented reluctantly, with insufficient staff, limited resources, and poorly managed. The success of bilingual programs would increase if attention was paid to problems in implementation. Besides, in Brazil, the private education sector is transforming to meet current market demands, offering bilingual education, and inserting a second language into everyday life. However, according to the MEC, only schools for the hearing impaired, border, and indigenous are considered bilingual. The lack of regulation creates confusion in the concept of bilingualism.
It is up to each nation to present and analyze these basic issues that involve each of the elements of controversy, in each of these broader categories, recognize the importance of bilingual education and strive to provide a place where students can fully understand and take advantage of languages who are studying.