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The “Bilingual Advantage”—Benefits Of Language Immersion Programs

Written by Mariana Serralde

Photography by Cindy Pulido, Photographed by Nicki Sebastian

Considering an immersion program for your offspring? Even if you’re personally only fluent in one language, plenty of recent studies have shown the advantages of raising a bilingual child. To learn more about the many benefits of language immersion, we asked Mariana Serralde, an expert on bilingual Montessori education for early childhood and a core member of Guidepost Montessori‘s pedagogy team, to break it down.

Over the past several decades, it has become a well-studied, accepted scientific conclusion that fluency in two languages is a distinct advantage for children. Researchers have discovered that bilingualism actually accelerates the development of executive functioning skills. The phenomenon is now so well reported on, it’s been fondly dubbed the “Bilingual Advantage.” In a 2011 New York Times interview, Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist, explained: “There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them…bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.”

For those parents seeking to dive more deeply into the scholarly research, a 2008 Cambridge University Press article offers a useful survey. And another classic paper on the topic, widely cited, was written by James Cummins in 1981. The high-level summary? It turns out that when children are regularly performing the “mental switch” of going back and forth between two different languages, it actually builds cognitive skills that they use in other ways. You can think of it as developing a certain over-arching “cognitive flexibility.” A child who speaks two languages is also likely to be faster and more nimble at creative problem solving, coming at problems from a variety of different angles and trying multiple approaches.

You might also make an analogy to flexibility in the child’s general outlook on the world—speaking multiple languages makes the world feel smaller. It helps children to develop as empathetic adults who are interested in and curious about varied cultures, eager to explore all of the wonderful places, rich cultural experiences, and interesting people that the world has to offer.

Aside from learning it at home, the best way for your child to gain fluency in a second language is to start in early childhood (the earlier the better!), by attending a language immersion school.

Early childhood is a brief window in which your child can acquire a second language naturally and easily, without conscious effort. Children who become bilingual at an early age speak with a native accent and are even able to think in their second language. This is because with young children, especially under the age of six, their brains are developing rapidly. They are soaking up all kinds of knowledge at an incredible pace and are especially attuned to the acquisition of language. Given this, a full immersion program (a program in which all of the adults speak the target language at all times) is ideal, as opposed to programs where the child receives only superficial language exposure and/or is not motivated to actually use the target language in the course of her normal day.

In a full language immersion setting, your child can learn a second language in the same easy, natural way that she learns English. Remember, fluency is the goal! All of the amazing benefits associated with the “bilingual advantage” have been observed in children who are truly bilingual.

Parents who are serious about giving their children the incredible gift of second-language fluency should look for early childhood programs in which all of the adults in the classroom consistently speak the target language, without switching back and forth between languages. Consistency is key. Parents should also be aware that learning to read and write a second language can sometimes cause short term delays in learning to read and write in English, simply because with two separate languages, there is more to learn. Those delays typically go away by the age of 8—but the benefits of bilingualism stick around for a lifetime.

At Guidepost Montessori, we mitigate these effects in our Spanish immersion programs by taking a very deliberate, carefully sequenced approach to bilingual reading and writing. We first help the child to develop proficiency in the target language, usually around age 4 (though we individualize to each child). Once the child has developed strong literacy skills, we have an English-speaking teacher (someone totally different from the child’s primary, Spanish-speaking teachers) work with the child one-on-one to introduce literacy in English, using a parallel set of materials with English letter sounds. Meanwhile, starting with toddlers, we establish “English Language Clubs” during our extended day program to ensure children are consistently exposed to rich and varied English vocabulary, in a fun and engaging way.

Montessori programs blend particularly well with language immersion, because the learning process is not solely reliant on language, but happens through the child’s exploration of hands-on materials. This means children don’t need to feel self-conscious about their degree of fluency, or experience any limitations while their fluency is still building. They can simply explore the materials in the classroom, picking up key vocabulary as they go along. It is always best when children absorb vocabulary through concrete experiences and in the course of their daily activities, because such vocabulary is better understood and retained.

Regardless of the particular philosophy an individual school employs, language immersion programs are an amazing option to provide your child with a rich, intellectually stimulating experience in early childhood, and to give her the unique gift of bilingualism, which will benefit her for a lifetime.

For related education-themed articles, check out our pieces on The Importance Of Talking To Babies, Play-Based Education, Teaching Kids Authenticity, An Argument For Not Making Kids Share, and 6 Independence-Building Montessori Activities For Toddlers.

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