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Do you speak my language?

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The benefits of bilingual education extend far beyond the acquisition of fluency in a second language. Elizabeth Jerabek reports

Raising and educating children in a culturally and linguistically dense community like Discovery Bay is a privilege but it can often feel overwhelming. Many of us would like our children to become fluent in two languages, for instance Cantonese and English, but this can seem like too big an ask, particularly if we are considering an immersive learning environment where the child’s second language (Cantonese or English) would be the language of instruction. Can children learn enough in a second language in order to succeed and do well in school?

The short answer to that question is ‘Yes,’ though you need to be in it for the long haul – it can take five or more years for a child to master a second language. The next question, then, is, ‘Is it worth it?’ Will the long-term benefits children gain from being bilingual outweigh the challenges of getting them there?

Academic performance
One of the leading proponents of bilingual education is Dr Virginia Collier, Professor Emerita of Bilingual/ Multicultural/ ESL Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. After years of teaching English as a second language in US public schools, Virginia – who grew up as an expat kid in Central America, speaking both her native US English and Spanish– set out to answer the questions: How long does it take non-native language learners to become academically able to do well in school in a second language, and what are the things that influence that process?

Virginia and her research partner Dr Wayne Thomas spent 32 years examining 7.5 million student records in their effort to answer these questions. They designed a longitudinal study that allowed them to follow the academic progress of English learners of all language backgrounds from kindergarten through to the end of secondary school in 36 school districts in 16 US states. The results of their 2017 study demonstrate that English-only and short-term transitional bilingual programmes close about half of the achievement gap between non-native language learners and native language speakers. In contrast, high-quality, long-term bilingual programmes in both the students’ first and second languages close the performance gap after five to six years of schooling.

The data also shows that students in these long-term bilingual programmes often do better in all of their academic subjects than do native language speakers who receive no bilingual training.

Developmental psychology research into bilingual education attributes better academic performance in bilingual students to enhanced development of three cognitive functions: executive control, theory of mind and episodic memory.

Executive control
The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child defines executive control as the cognitive processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks. Like a stoplight at a busy intersection, the brain uses this skill set to monitor situations in order to filter distractions, prioritise tasks and control impulses. In other words, executive control is the brain’s ability to switch between tasks in order to prioritise the appropriate response to a set of stimuli while inhibiting inappropriate responses.

Developmental psychologists believe that bilingual education helps stimulate the development of executive control as bilingual children have to continually monitor situations (such as which language is spoken when and by whom) in order to prioritise the appropriate response (speaking or responding in the situationally correct language), while inhibiting the inappropriate response (actively not speaking the other language). For example, a child may say goodbye to their mum in one language, but may say hello to their teacher and classmates in another language.

Bilingual education provides greater opportunities for children to strengthen their executive control skill set, which can help them later in life in more complex situations that may require greater self-regulation and emotional control in order to sustain attention to complete the tasks required to achieve a desired goal.

Theory of mind
Perhaps one of the most interesting abilities that begins to emerge during early childhood is children’s ability to appreciate the perspective of other individuals. This ability to appreciate another’s mental state and, as a result, to explain and predict another’s behaviour is known as theory of mind.

While executive control helps bilingual children monitor a situation and respond appropriately – I say ‘Goodbye’ to my mum in English but I say ‘Néih hóu’ to my teacher in Cantonese – theory of mind helps bilingual children socially understand which response is appropriate and why. When I say goodbye to my mum, I say ‘I love you’ because she’s my parent; but when I say goodbye to my teacher I don’t say ‘Ngo oi nei’ because my teacher is not part of my family.

Studies show that language competence in children predicts the development of theory of mind– and that the acquisition of theory of mind is delayed in children with specific language impairment. In other words, the better a child can communicate, the better they can understand social situations and the mental state of another.

According to a 2004 study of 31 bilingual and 29 monolingual pre-schoolers, bilingual pre-schoolers are better able to predict others behaviour in the future and they have a better understanding of why others behaved the way they did in the past. This ability may make it easier for bilingual students to understand when and why their teacher wants them to do something, and may make it easier for them to collaborate with and learn from their peers.

Episodic memory
In the same way that it may be easier for bilingual children to anticipate what might happen in the future based on the behaviour of others, it may also be easier for bilingual children to remember what has happened in the past. Psychologists categorise memory as either working memory or episodic memory. Working memory is active and relevant only for a short period of time, whereas episodic memory is longer lasting, it allows us to recall and re-experience a specific event or situation.

Research indicates that bilinguals may struggle to remember information from verbal episodes if they are asked to retrieve that memory in a language other than the one they used to form and encode the memory. But for non-verbal episodes, which may be encoded as memories through some other stimuli such as sight, taste, smell, or touch, bilinguals are at an advantage, likely due to better executive control.

In a 2012 study, designed to encourage the participants to encode a visual scene in their memory as a non-verbal episode rather than a verbal episode, bilingual and monolingual adults were asked to perform a picture recall task. Participants were shown a series of pictures depicting complex scenes that were not easily labelled or described, and the participants were not given much time to view each scene. Moreover, the participants did not know they would later have to recall the pictures, which decreased the chances of them labelling the pictures and using language as strategy to remember the scene later. The results of the study showed that bilingual participants recalled more pictures than monolinguals, and, within the bilingual group, early and more bilingual experience was associated with better recall.

Similar research indicates that that bilingualism can also protect against memory decline, since bilinguals who have Alzheimer’s tend to show memory-related symptoms at a later age than monolinguals.

So back to the original question: Will the long-term benefits children gain from being bilingual outweigh the challenges of getting them there? That’s for you to decide but I’m leaning towards a ‘Hai.’

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