By Yvonne Vasquez
Although bilingualism may often seem to be just a popular social trend, there are actually many more substantial benefits that can be gained by knowing more than one language. In fact, the advantages of being bilingual have been well established in recent years.
From a purely scientific perspective, being bilingual allows the brain to more easily approach cognitive problems. This improved cognitive development seems to result from the way a bilingual person can approach the world from more than one perspective.
Bilingual skills also allow the brain to achieve higher levels of abstract thinking. In an article by Viorica Marian, Ph.D., director of the Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics Laboratory at Northwestern University, the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are reviewed in great detail.
Why is cognitive development so important? Cognitive development, or the ability to think and understand, is fundamental to learning. Scientists have discovered that certain regions of the brain that govern problem solving, memory, reasoning, task flexibility and planning play an important role in the learning process.
Cognitive or task flexibility, in particular, can be greatly enhanced through early bilingual learning. The skills most closely affected by this are reading fluency and comprehension, problem-solving and reasoning ability.
There are many other valid reasons for introducing a second language into your child’s life. For starters, being able to communicate in two languages introduces new worlds of understanding.
“You are instantly bridging a gap when you speak to another human being in their native tongue,” says Norbert Soto. “This leads to new ways of thinking about others when that did not exist before.”
Another benefit comes when traveling in foreign countries. The trip can be so much more enjoyable when you can speak to the locals.
“My children definitely have more meaningful cultural experiences when they travel to Latin countries and are able to converse with the locals in their language,” explains Soto. “People become more trusting and open when you can communicate with them on the same level.”
Enriched learning about diverse cultures is another valuable benefit your child is sure to appreciate. Increased tolerance for other backgrounds and customs also adds to the bilingual experience. Not to mention the professional doors that can be more easily opened when it comes to future career opportunities.
According to Annalyn Kurtz of CNN Money, “Fluency in a foreign language is currently one of the hottest job skills to have.”
Bilingual employees are in demand and can earn more money on average in the United States. As companies become international in scope, being bilingual will give your child a definite competitive edge.
Such employees are simply more marketable to an employer than other applicants because their global potential of understanding is perceived as much broader. In addition, translators and interpreters are expected to be one of the 15 fastest growing occupations in the nation, according to the Department of Labor.
According to Livingbilingual.com, “Being able to speak a language, other than English, can typically add around 10 to 15 percent to your wage.” This is especially true if the position calls for a second language as a requirement for the position, such as customer service, sales or travel occupations.
Bilingual positions typically get fewer applicants than other jobs, effectively narrowing the competitive field as a result. Christopher Leite, a teaching assistant at the University of Ottawa, has experienced more opportunity than his non-bilingual colleagues by qualifying for more contracts and requiring less training for the same positions.
After making the decision to raise a bilingual child, it is important to be proactive in the process. From birth to age 7 is the most optimal time to introduce this into your child’s life. Erika Levy, Ph.D., assistant professor of Speech and Language Pathology at Columbia University, explains that much of the crucial language development in the brain takes place during this period.
Begin as early as possible, ideally from day one. If that’s not possible, then begin as soon as you can. Timing is important when it comes to learning a second language. The optimal age for this kind of learning is from birth to 3.
Bilingual children may experience a temporary delay in talking when compared to other children. This is perfectly normal and is no cause for alarm. After all, physicist Albert Einstein spoke both German and Italian, and did not speak until he was 3 years old, according to Stanford economist Dr. Thomas Sowell, author of the book, “The Einstein Syndrome.”
The second best period for language learning is when kids are between 4 and 7 years old. However, if children are older than 7 and have not yet reached puberty, it is still possible for their young brains to process more than one language easier than an adult can.
Most importantly, understand that this endeavor requires lots of time, energy and commitment. If you speak the second language, don’t make the mistake of assuming that your child will just “pick up” the language from you along the way. As with most worthwhile things, persistence is the key. Viola Robles knew this was necessary in order to help her child succeed in being bilingual.
“I made sure that we talked to our daughter every day in both English and Spanish since she was a baby,” says Robles. “She is now in college and being able to communicate in both languages has been very beneficial for her.”
In some families, daily conversation will be a key factor in establishing the learning routine. But if parents are not bilingual themselves, they will need to seek the help of formal instruction for their child.
Too many parents often make the mistake of assuming that this will be an easy process and are disappointed when they learn that nothing could be further from the truth. The bilingual journey is a wonderful adventure, but “it definitely requires perseverance,” explains educator Adam Beck. Beck is the creator of Bilingual Monkeys, a website for parents seeking to raise bilingual children.
The day-to-day distractions of family life can be daunting when trying to sustain a bilingual environment in the home. Life happens, but if the process goes off schedule once in a while, it’s not the end of the world. Don’t give up – just remember how important your goal is and get back on track as soon as possible.
If you don’t speak the chosen language, you will need to also invest in specific schools or caregivers to help your child. Other ways you can find the balance include seeking out opportunities for your child to practice the language through babysitters, family members or community programs.
Bilingual playgroups are one of the most enriching ways to increase your child’s exposure to the language, for both children and parents alike.
Bilingual Buddies is one local group that offers opportunities for bilingual socializing with other children and their parents.
Consider using bilingual children’s books for your child’s story time. Music is another easy way to incorporate a second language into your child’s bilingual world. Look for CDs or recorded programs to add a musical flavor to your child’s learning.
Games, puzzles and puppets also provide powerful opportunities for bilingual learning. As an added bonus, these playtime tools also allow for wonderful bonding interaction with your child.
Parents must be determined in their efforts to reinforce the second language. This is especially important because once your child is immersed in the elementary school system and is communicating in the majority language (usually English) it can quickly become dominant.
Although your particular situation may not be perfect, anything you can do to maintain your progress will help you achieve your ultimate goal – raising a child who can enjoy the best of both worlds.
Yvonne Vasquez is a San Antonio based freelance writer. She used some of the techniques mentioned in this article to raise a bilingual child.