Magellan News

The Benefits of Bilingualism: Helping Children Improve Cognition and Become More Empathetic

Many of you may have heard the joke:
What do you call someone who speaks 3 languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages? Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks 1 language? American.
The joke’s punchline continues to be true for most Americans. Approximately 20 percent of US citizens are fluent in a second language while the number for the rest of the world surpasses 50 percent. We are fortunate here in Austin, however, to live in an increasingly multicultural city where diversity and being different is valued. Indeed, the city’s slogan is Keep Austin Weird.
For some parents there is an element of fear in enrolling their children in a second language immersion or bilingual school. They we need to have some level of fluency in the second language for our children to be successful? Will the development of skills in their “home language” be at risk? Fortunately, there is a wealth of research and experience that show the benefits far outweigh any risks. Bilingualism provides significant cognitive benefits, particularly in the areas of decision making and spatial awareness. Bilingual children are also more creative in solving complex problems and have a more discerning thought process. While it is true that monolingual students tend to have a wider vocabulary in Primary school, bilingual students catch up and surpass them in Secondary school. As for parents who do not have any second language skills, there’s absolutely no problem. They should continue to give consistent support to the development of literacy skills in the “home language” of their child. Studies indicate that the stronger the development of the native language, the greater proficiency in the immersion language.

When should we get our child started on the journey to bilingualism? The short answer is, the younger the better. For preschool children, learning a second language in an immersion school setting seems natural. They are just starting to develop communication skills in their native language, so the learning of the two languages is often intertwined. This results in positive transfer between the two languages. In addition, bilinguals often speak the second language with a better accent when they began speaking it at an early age.

"Rather than creating confusion - as many believed in the past - learning two languages simultaneously actually increases brain elasticity and cognition. Language learners are developing the ability to mentally juggle both languages, enhancing their ability to ignore irrelevant information, switch between tasks and resolve conflict. The skills that multilinguals develop allow them be more thoughtful about their choice of words. Simply put, their brains develop to perceive and process languages differently than those that only speak one language, making them more empathetic individuals."
- Iris Wingrove, M.D., Optimize Neurology

In today’s global environment the ability to positively interact with people across cultures is highly valued. Bilinguals outperform monolinguals in a variety of social tasks including how to read people. They demonstrate a greater focus on others. In other words, they are more empathetic.

What parent wouldn’t want their children to be smarter, more empathetic and more flexible and adaptable when it comes to future professional opportunities? Fortunately, my job at Magellan International School allows me to observe children during all the stages of their language journey.

A three-year-old child will understand my questions in Spanish but may respond in English. A kindergartener will tell me about what he/she is learning in simple phrases in Spanish, perhaps mixing in a few words in English. A group of third grade students will be able to explain their unit showcase project eloquently in either Spanish or English. In fifth grade, students participate in the “PYP Exhibition”. They collaboratively conduct research into a real life issue and then implement an action to address that problem. In addition to writing a 15-page research paper in Spanish for the PYP Exhibition, they present their results in both Spanish and English to the whole school community - students, parents and teachers. That’s when, as an educator and a parent, I know that the journey towards bilingualism reaps incredible rewards!

"Personally, the largest advantage I see in being bilingual and multicultural is the ability to more effectively work with people from diverse backgrounds. This is because a bilingual and multicultural person is more likely to seek out multiple perspectives in any given situation, obtain a greater understanding and be more empathetic with the his/her collaborators.  In the workforce, the need for this skill is even greater simply because our world is becoming smaller. Interdisciplinary research, advancements in STEAM, the economy, health, national security and a variety of other fields are already global in scope."
- Angela Pack Zia, Founder and President of the Board of Directors, Think Bilingual Austin

A growing number of independent and public schools in the United States are adopting bilingual language models. That is forward progress, especially when one recalls that in the past some states prohibited the teaching of foreign languages to young children. Living in Austin affords families with a range of opportunities to learn new languages, and Magellan International School is proud to be at the forefront of that movement. Bilingualism is a gift that will accompany children throughout their lives.