If you studied a second language in high school or college, you were maybe just hoping to learn enough that you’d be able to ask for a chocolate croissant and directions to the train station next time you happened to be in Paris. While we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of chocolate croissants, research shows that the benefits of learning a second language — and the earlier the better — are much more important and far-reaching than simply knowing a different way of saying the same old things.
Experts agree that foreign-language learning can give kids a leg up in many areas of their lives, both now and in the future, with benefits ranging from academic achievement and career success to better interpersonal relationships. Whether they’re learning a second (or third or fourth) language at home, from a relative, at school, or as an extracurricular activity, research shows it’s helping them become better thinkers, better learners, and better citizens of the world.
Here are the top five reasons all kids should learn a foreign language:
1. It improves their academic performance. Studying a foreign language “strongly reinforces the core subject areas of reading, English language literacy, social studies, and math,” and helps students “consistently outperform control groups on standardized tests, often significantly,” according to a 2007 University of Maine publication that collected dozens of research findings and citations to illustrate the benefits of foreign language education. Simply put, learning a second language can help kids improve their academic performance across the board.
2. It’s good for brain development. One of the main reasons experts support getting kids into foreign languages as soon as possible, rather than waiting until they’re tweens and teens, is based on how it affects brain development. “Studies have shown that the brain of a young child has several areas active in language acquisition, a capacity that is significantly diminished as he or she grows older,” says Bob Hershberger, a professor of Spanish at DePauw University and the father of two soon-to-be-bilingual children. “In other words, young children (ages 2 to 6) are very active receptors of the languages that surround them,” a factor that means they can pick up a new language much easier than they will out of a high school textbook.
“After [age 7], language learning becomes effortful,” says Jodi Tommerdahl, a professor in the Southwest Center for Mind, Brain, and Education at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Furthermore, bilingualism is now thought to prevent cognitive decline in aging, and protects against the early onset of Alzheimers. There is every reason to teach foreign languages to children at the youngest age possible.”
3. It helps them in their native language. I learned more about English grammar in my college foreign language classes than I did in my rest of my career as a student, and research confirms that foreign language study helps kids better understand what language is and how it works.
As for those who might worry that foreign language acquisition in young children will make it harder for them to grasp a single language, Raúl Rojas, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who specializes in bilingual development, says, “Commonly held myths of language confusion are exactly that: myths! Bilingual children coordinate and negotiate information across their languages; bilingualism does not cause communication disorders, and monolingualism does not cure them.” The incorporation of a second language can actually improve a child’s grasp of language as a whole.
4. It connects them to their heritage. Not too long ago, parents who spoke a language other than English often discouraged their kids from learning that language, in an effort to help them better assimilate into American culture. Several generations later, the dominant culture is now, in many ways, a global culture, and there’s an increasing trend to celebrate differences rather than downplay them. Now, children with personal connections to non-English-speaking people — whether distant ancestors or living relatives — have a special opportunity to learn through language about their families, their heritage, and themselves.
Rojas gives this advice: “Do not limit contact with family or age-appropriate peers that do not speak English. Speak, sing, and read to or with your child in the language you are most comfortable using, even if that is not English. Involve family and age-appropriate peers, whether they speak the native language and/or English.” Language is a living thing that shouldn’t be learned only from books.
5. Cultural awareness of others. Learning the language of your local immigrants can help your child better communicate with and understand the people in his community. It’s important our kids learn not just about words but about people, and the very best foreign language exposure will incorporate the cultures of native speakers, both abroad and down the street.
“As the United States moves very rapidly to become a bilingual society, we almost have an ethical responsibility to our children [when it comes to] the language skills they most likely will need later in life,” says Hershberger. “I’m convinced that exposure to a second language at an early age relates to a more open and diverse worldview later in life. When a child is exposed to variety in speech patterns, he or she learns that the world is a diverse place and that heterogeneity is the norm. If this child is immersed in, or exposed to, a variety of cultural settings in which these languages are spoken, then he or she will learn that language is a means to bridge these communities.”
When it comes to kids learning foreign languages, the verdict is clear: está todo bien, c’est tout bon, Zhè yīqiè dōu hěn hǎo, it’s all good.
What foreign languages will your children learn?