Learning a foreign language is a basic part of many children’s education. From Spanish to Chinese, research shows that the benefits of a bilingual education go far beyond mere convenience or academic success.
Learning an additional language actually has concrete benefits that continue to benefit children long after high school.
Improved language ability
One of the main concerns of parents who teach their child a second language is that their children will have a harder time speaking English. The misconception is that children can’t easily differentiate between their native language and a second language, so if they become too fluent in a non-English language, it will be to their detriment. Fascinatingly, not only is this not true, but the opposite is actually true — students who receive education in another language have been shown to have better language ability than monolingual students.
In fact, students are able to transfer their language abilities from one language to another. That means that the more language education they receive, the better. Students who study multiple languages learn nuances of grammar, syntax and sentence structure that monolingual students don’t have to think twice about. This improves students’ writing, reading, speaking and listening abilities.
Research shows that bilingual people have an easier time making calm, rational decisions. One study found that bilingual English and Spanish speakers performed better than monolingual students in social problem solving, while another found that adult bilingual people are able to more confidently make a choice after thinking it over in two languages.
When you have multiple languages to choose from, your brain is forced to constantly make all sorts of decisions about which language to speak, which words to choose and other related choices. It seems that all that problem-solving practice pays off in everyday life, too.
Dual language learning also has other cognitive benefits. It’s safe to say that, in general, knowing multiple languages makes children smarter overall. Various studies have found correlations between bilingualism and intelligence, as well as memory, attention and cognitive development. Over time, those benefits pay off in old age as well — bilingualism may protect against age-related loss of cognitive ability.
How exactly can language-learning confer all of those benefits? Practicing a new language is like learning any other skill — it takes time, and the more you practice, the more you build up your linguistic muscle. This process strengthens your brain by exercising it repeatedly. Language skills use several different parts of the brain.
Better academic achievement
Interested in the more concrete benefits of second-language education? The academic benefits are well-known. Data shows that students who receive instruction in more than one language fare better in school by practically any measure. They score better on standardized tests, get better SAT and ACT scores and do better in college. They also have better attendance rates, seem to be happier in school, and have fewer behavioral problems.
For many families, education is the single ticket to economic mobility. For those children, doing well in school can be the difference between success and hardship. Teaching all children a second language helps to put everyone on an even playing field. If simply learning a second language helps to keep children happily engaged in school, then that alone is a worthy benefit.
Greater job opportunities
Studies also show that there is a correlation between language learning and economic success. People who speak a second language tend to earn more money. The academic benefits of language education pay off in terms of greater career opportunities and higher earning power. Moreover, there are entire fields of work that will pay a premium for those can speak a valuable second language.
People who work in business and speak Chinese, for example, are in-demand across the country. The same is true for a wide variety of fields, though, from journalism to teaching. As the world becomes increasingly connected, speaking only one language can significantly reduce your ability to get to the next career step.
Of course, children who are still in grade school are too young to know for sure which career path they’ll choose as adults. However, as educators and parents, the responsibility falls to adults to make sure that students are equipped to go in any direction. Knowing at least one foreign language can only benefit students, no matter what job they end up in.
Second language education may seem like a novelty. However, the research shows that there are real-life benefits to knowing a foreign language that go far beyond simply being able to converse with people in other countries.
These benefits begin while children are still young and extend long after they’ve graduated high school — from college to careers to old age.