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Bilingual Edge, The
The Ultimate Guide to Why, When, and How
How Can Your Child Benefit from the Bilingual Edge?
You probably already have the idea that you'd like to raise your child to speak more than one language. You might have begun already. And you're not alone! Many parents feel...and as parents and scientists we wholeheartedly agree...that being bilingual provides an undeniable advantage in life. For children, advanced knowledge of two languages has been shown to result in specific brain benefits, like enhanced creativity and flexibility, increased test scores, and improved literacy skills, as well as social advantages such as greater cross-cultural understanding, adaptability, and increased competitiveness on the job market down the line. Language is interwoven with who we are and how we relate to others, and many parents realize that knowing two or more languages can enhance not only their children's self-esteem and identity, but also their pride in their own heritage.
Most parents reading this book have a sense of these important advantages (which is why you picked up this book to begin with!). In this chapter, we'll review some of the most important research findings that demonstrate exactly what these bilingual advantages are. Keeping these scientific findings in mind will help you persevere in the months and years ahead. This research will also arm you with the information you will need to help motivate others and even get any skeptics on your side (including those in your own family, day-care providers, doctors, and teachers who don't know the research).
Knowing Two Languages Gives Children a Cognitive Edge
Many of us intuitively grasp that knowing more than one language makes us smarter in some way. And indeed, this intuition is supported by lots of research. Part of the bilingual edge is that bilinguals tend to outperform monolinguals on many different sorts of tests.
In what areas do bilinguals have an edge? First, people with advanced knowledge of more than one language seem to be more creative. How is creativity measured, you may be wondering...it seems like a pretty abstract concept. Well, most frequently by asking questions like: "How many ways could you use an empty water bottle?" On these sorts of tests, bilinguals tend to produce more answers and also more creative answers. For instance, for the water bottle question, most of us would come up with the obvious answer ("filling it with water"), but bilinguals are more likely to come up with other answers too, like "filling it with sand and making a paperweight." Overall, bilinguals outperform monolinguals on most tests like these, most of the time. Something about knowing more than one language seems to make children both more creative and what researchers describe as more mentally flexible. This type of creativity is increasingly important in today's world...and can translate into success in school and in life!
For instance, many adult bilingual authors describe their bilingualism as a source of inspiration for their writing. Different sounds, grammars, and ways of saying things can provide fresh perspectives on everyday occurrences. Prominent writers who've used their bilingualism to creative advantage include Salman Rushdie, Sandra Cisneros, Isabelle Allende, Arundhati Roy, and Junot Diaz (among many, many others). As German-Japanese-English trilingual writer Yoko Tawada explains, "When you make a connection between two words that lie miles apart, a kind of electricity is produced in your head. There is a flash of lightning, and that is a 'wonderfull' feeling."
So creativity and flexibility are good, but what else does being bilingual buy you? Most of the cognitive advantages stem from bilinguals' greater metalinguistic awareness, which means awareness of language as an object or system. Bilingual children are more sensitive to the fact that language is a system that can be analyzed or played with. Metalinguistic awareness is what allows us to appreciate many types of jokes, puns, and metaphors. This sounds a bit abstract, but metalinguistic awareness is also linked to important academic skills, including learning to read. Children who are more metalinguistically aware have fewer problems in becoming literate and do better on tests of reading readiness. Bilingual children are more likely than monolingual children to recognize that it's possible, for instance, for one object to have two names. This also allows them to recognize linguistic ambiguities sooner than monolinguals. Because they know two languages, bilinguals are much more sophisticated than monolinguals in terms of understanding something very important about how language works! Metalinguistic awareness is something that teachers often try to foster, because of its connection to test scores and literacy. Bilinguals automatically have an edge in this sort of knowledge.
Bilinguals also outperform monolinguals on tests that require them to ignore distracting information. Bilinguals are better at focusing on the required task (for instance, judging the correctness of the grammar of a sentence or counting the number of words in a sentence) while disregarding misleading, irrelevant details. This is also an important advantage in today's educational environments where there is a lot of language to work with and no shortage of distractions.
So, to recap, bilingual children have specific advantages over monolingual children, particularly in areas like metalinguistic awareness, creativity, and the ability to control linguistic processing. However, we do need to point out a few things. First, while these advantages are important, parents shouldn't be misled to believe that bilingualism influences every aspect of cognition. Second, findings about bilingual advantages generally apply to children who have advanced proficiency in the two languages. In other words, we are not talking about children who have grasped simple skills like how to count to five in Spanish and say hello and good-bye. Very occasional exposure to a second language (for example, half an hour of TV or a short class once a week) is probably not enough for significant language learning and the associated advantages to take hold. Third, other factors, such as children's exposure to books and other literacy materials, play an important role. Exposure to print (in any language) enhances metalinguistic awareness, so for optimum benefits, be sure that . . .Bilingual Edge, The
The Ultimate Guide to Why, When, and How. Copyright © by Kendall King. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.