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Positive Effects of Bilingualism in Children

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Introduction

Ensuring their child receives a quality education that is tailored to the child’s needs and abilities is a primary concern of all parents. Yet, when language learning is concerned, opinions are widely varied. This essay intends to argue the view that exposing children to second or subsequent languages during early childhood is predominantly beneficial to the child’s future, with the advantages exceeding the perceived negatives.

Firstly the discrepancy between a child who is exposed to a second or multiple languages during childhood and a child who is being raised to be bilingual or multilingual must be mentioned. The dictionary defines bilingualism as “the ability to use two languages”. This can create great difficulty for linguists as it raises some very important questions, most notably giving raise to debates regarding what degree of language proficiency is needed to be considered bilingual. Is a level of fluency required? A bilingual may have mastered both languages or may have only limited proficiency in one and be far more proficient in the other, or even have little competence in either language. Yet, a child could potentially be exposed to a second language without gaining the ability to use it. The use of the term ‘bilingual’ is thus dependent upon context; linguistic proficiency and purpose. Rampton (1990) suggests replacing terms such as ‘native speaker’ and ‘mother tongue’ with language expertise, language affiliation and language inheritance. These terms may be used as stricter definitions to gauge a person’s language proficiency. However, for the purpose of this essay I will consider the goal of exposing children to second and subsequent languages is done so with the aim of the child becoming bilingual or multilingual. I will also use the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s interpretation of early childhood education as from “birth to six years”, which typically includes children up to Senior Infants in the Irish education system.

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Phonetic Effects

With recent research suggesting that over 50% of children grow up with some use of multiple languages, the phonetic benefits of multilingualism are being discovered. Children are born with a unique speech sound system and distinctive speech perception strengths that show a dual change as they age, with non-native speech perception declining, while native language perception skills show enhancements (Kuhl, Conboy, Coffey-Corina, Padden, Rivera-Gaxiola & Nelson, 2008). However, a modern study also indicates that exposure to five hours of live human interaction through a foreign language over a four week period can reverse the decline of non-native speech perception (Kuhl, Tsao, & Liu, 2003). This study also suggests that short term exposure to a foreign language is also sufficient to create a notable phonetic learning of that language, alluding to the speech production benefits and the sound recognition and repetition improvements attributed to multilingualism in children. However, further experiments show that solely hearing a language does not provide sufficient stimulus for children to benefit. The same experiment was replicated with the live foreign language teacher replaced with audio and audio visual presentations, yet the level of learning and phonetic benefits sharply declined, suggesting that social cues, such as interaction, props and gaze, that can only occur through live speech are an essential part of early childhood language acquisition and are consequently a vital aspect to the reaping of the phonetic benefits. A further advantage is likely to stem from the previously discussed phonetic advantages. Due to a child’s unique speech sound system, a child is more likely to develop a native-like fluency and accent in their speech, due to their ability to hear and apply phonetic differences between languages. As we age we appear to lose this unique trait which makes exposing children to multiple languages particularly beneficial as it the one time in their lives where they will access to this ability, with research suggesting this period occurs from birth until the child is ten years of age (Ghasemi & Hashemi, 2011). Their native-like pronunciation also assists future language education, especially languages that share a similar sound base such as Latin based languages.

Multilingualism & Mental Functions

Mental functions are brain-based skills we need to carry out any task from simple to complex. They have more to do with the mechanisms of how we learn, remember, problem-solve, and pay attention, rather than with any actual knowledge. Research into the effects multilingualism has on various mental functions has been undertaken, with the net results attributing many benefits to exposure to multiple languages.

Cognitive Abilities

The first benefit of exposing children to multiple languages during early childhood education I will discuss is the strong evidence that early language learning improves cognitive abilities. A FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School) study (Foster, & Reeves, 1989) looked at the effects that an elementary school foreign language program had on the cognitive skills of pupils by attempting to study a correlation between months of elementary foreign language instruction in French and scores on tests designed to measure cognitive processes. The results were measured using the Ross test (a test that assesses abstract and critical thinking skills) and Butterfly and Moths test. These experiments showed that the groups who received foreign language instruction scored significantly higher in three areas than the control group. The results also showed a correlation between the time spent learning French and a higher score on both tests, suggesting that a subject’s proficiency in a second language proportionally increased the strength of their cognitive ability. This was an important discovery as it severely weakened the argument that the childrens’ scores were due to their natural cognitive ability. This increase in cognitive performance creates future benefits for bilingual children also, given the evidence that correlates bilingualism and the offsetting of age-related cognitive losses. While the previous two studies examined the benefits of exposing children to multiple languages, further research (Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004) has attempted to see if these benefits continued into adulthood and whether bilingualism can offset the negative effects aging can have on one’s cognitive abilities. This study compared the performance of monolingual and bilingual middle-aged and older adults on the Simon task (a choice reaction time task where there is dimensional overlap between the irrelevant stimulus and the response). Bilingualism proved to be an advantage as it resulted in smaller Simon effect costs and quicker responses to tasks that required the use of a participant’s working memory. Hence there appears to be a link between bilingualism and cognitive losses that allows the former to counteract the later. As a multilingual child is unlikely to become a monolingual adult, and given that advantages appear to be gained from the process of becoming multilingual, the studies suggest that not only should we be exposing children to more than one language as a child to facilitate immediate language acquisition, but also the acquisition of languages in the distant future and the maintenance of these languages and their cognitive abilities.

Memory

A further skill that exposing a child to a second language or multiple languages appears to benefit is memory. A study of 60 bilingual children and 60 monolingual children measured each child’s episodic memory and semantic memory (Kormi-Nouri, Moniri, & Nilsson, 2003). There was a clear strength in being bilingual, suggesting the skills of being able to remember and use more than language has a positive effect on one’s memory, allowing them to not only gather more information but to effectively process this knowledge also. This clearly depicts how exposing children to multiple languages has long term positive effects on their future. “An important part of learning a new language is the ability to retain relevant information long enough to comprehend it or to analyse it syntactically. It therefore stands to reason that those who have the capacity to do this to a greater extent would also be those who are more successful at learning all aspects of language (Gass & Selinker, 2008). Someone with a greater ability to remember and use information will find it much easier to learn and apply further information. However, some studies have found that memory load of knowing multiple languages can create very modest delays in the execution of some tasks in multilinguals in comparison to monolinguals and bilinguals. These delays are in the range of milliseconds, and are regarded as a fairly negligent consequence of multilingualism.

Intelligence Quotient

Further links can be seen between bilingualism and intelligence. Bilingualism is not only related to greater cognitive ability but also greater intelligence. A study utilizing a group of monolingual and a group of bilingual children obtained from 6 Montreal French schools were given verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests (Peal & Lambert, 1962). The results found that bilinguals performed significantly better than their monolingual counterparts on both the verbal and the nonverbal intelligence tests. While there is some connection between cognition and intelligence, they are not the same thing. Cognitive abilities can be trained and improved as one assimilates new information whereas you IQ score remains relatively static throughout your life. This study proves significantly important as it provides an explanation as to how the information one acquires while learning a second language is not what causes the greater cognitive and IQ scores secured by bilingual children, but rather the skills one acquires from the ability to speak more than one language. Another study examined the effects of a year’s attendance in a French Language Immersion Program (FLIP) (Samuels & Griffore, 1979) on children’s verbal & performance sections of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) & self-esteem, measured by the Purdue Self Concept Scale (PSCS). While the data only showed trivial differences between the FLIP & English control groups’ self-esteem scores, there was significant differences between groups on overall Performance IQ, Picture Arrangement, & Object Assembly. The aforementioned studies demonstrate a strong connection between exposure to a second language and higher cognitive abilities, illustrating how this exposure provides immense advantages to a child’s future.

Verbal and Spatial

Another skill that exposing a child to multiple languages supports is their verbal and spatial abilities. A previous study (Diaz, 1982). investigated the development of verbal and spatial abilities within a group of Spanish and English bilingual children participating in bilingual education programs and were in an age range from Kindergarten to First Grade. In particular, the study examined the cognitive effects of bilingualism on children who are just beginning to learn a second language and proposed a measure of degree of bilingualism that effectively controls for basic ability in the dominant language. The results firmly supported the claim that bilingualism fosters the development of verbal and spatial abilities. The relationship between bilingualism and cognitive abilities was particularly strong for children of low second-language proficiency, implying that only exposure to second language is needed to reap the benefits and that a high level of proficiency is not required for one to see an improvement in their verbal and spatial abilities.

Common Objections

Alternate research has presented evidence on both sides of the bilingualism argument, indicating that bilinguals have slight linguistic disadvantages as compared to children who speak only one language monolinguals (Bialystok, 2008). Four aspects of this dissimilar research will be discussed.

Delayed Speech

Speech delay occurs when a child’s speech development is significantly below the norm of their peers of the same age. Many parents worry that exposure to multiple languages will cause confusion and delayed speech in children. Like many myths, this view has a construed understanding of the scientific research. There is currently no empirical evidence to link bilingualism to language delay (De Houwer, 2009; Paradis, Crago & Genesee, 2011). While there’s no scientific evidence that proves multilingualism causes speech delay, research by Bialystok (2008) and Doyle, Champagne and Segalowitz (1978) found vocabulary acquisition to be slower in bilinguals than in monolinguals, but speech acquisition was still within normal ranges for both groups. Many parents and educators estimate that there is a three to six month speech delay compared to monolingual children of the same age. However, this argument is easily countered when we realise that multilingual a child learning two or more languages must learn twice the vocabulary, twice the grammar and twice the language systems. With this six month delay considered, I am of the opinion that this is insignificant issue that is easily rectified in the future by the plethora of benefits incurred by the ability to speak multiple languages. Other researchers note, however, that the simultaneous bilingual child’s first words appear around the same time as the monolinguals – around 12 months (Patterson & Zurer-Pearson, 2004).

Mixing Languages

Children being raised as multilingual often used words from both languages in the same sentence. This is a temporary phenomenon that tends to disappear by the ages of four or five (Baker, 1996). As adults, we often use filler as we process and organise our thoughts to produce speech. Similarly, when multilingual children are unable to recall a word from one language, they might borrow it from another. This automatically disappears when the vocabulary in each language increases and children begin to grasp the fact that they are multilingual and ascertain the differences between their languages.

Language Balance

Evenly balanced multilingualism is extremely rare and this can worry parents. Depending on circumstances, one language of a multilingual is often in advance of the other(s) for certain periods. The strongest language is mobile however. This occurrence was documented (Baker & Wright, 2017) in Leopold’s classic study of his daughter Hildegard. Hildegard lived in the United States. Her mother spoke English to her and her father German. When she visited Germany, her German became the stronger of her two languages. When she returned to the United States, her English became her strongest language. Another study (Fantini, 1985) profiled this shift for a subject, Mario, who grew up in the United States to Spanish-Italian bilingual parents. His parents spoke to each other in Italian, but always addressed Mario in Spanish. Mario was also exposed to English through his schooling. Consequently, his capacity in Italian was limited and he was Spanish-dominant, but subsequently his English caught up, so that by the age of ten his Spanish and English seemed to be at a broadly comparable level.

Additional Effort Required of Parents

Perhaps the biggest negative that can occur from raising children to be multilingual is the additional strain and stress that the previous problems can place on parents. Raising a multilingual child is a major commitment that does not incur instant results. It is instead a long-term investment in your child, gifting them the gift of access to multiple languages. However, this gift requires intense effort on the part of parents (Baker, 2014) to provide enough language exposure, consistent language exposure, encouragement and perhaps the toughest of all, a change in the previous language pattern of the family, especially when parents are following the one parent, one language approach. A further emotional strain can occur if one parent becomes removed from certain conversations if they are not efficient in a language being taught to and used by a child. Raising multilingual children requires consistent time management, planning and effort. While this can be difficult to begin, the educational and social benefits of raising children in the multiple languages of the family is surely worth the endeavour.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is the clear that above research illustrates the multiple benefits of acquiring more than one language. Not only does it increase your job prospects, allow you to immerse yourself into different cultures, but also increases your ability to further educate yourself. As the cognitive, special and verbal ability and general intelligence benefits of language attainment is linked to more than just language acquisition, your ability to study any other topics should theoretically improve. However, to state that exposing a child to more than one language guarantees the procurement of all these benefits is an overstatement. There is, however, no doubt that it can certainly help.

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