Raising a Bilingual Child: The Benefits of Being Bilingual

December 27, 2022

As the Principal for PK-1 at Escuela Bilingüe Internacional (EBI), a bilingual PK-8 International Baccalaureate (IB) Spanish-English immersion school, I often get questions from parents about whether students’ academic development is impeded because they are learning a second language. I share with them that the research shows that there are no significant adverse effects in learning a second language for the development of either languages or even for academic success, but more importantly, there are in fact significant advantages in raising a bilingual or multilingual child. The advantages of raising a bilingual child can be summarized in three parts: linguistic, cognitive and cultural development.

What Are The Benefits of Being Bilingual?

Linguistic Development

In terms of linguistic development, there is a positive relationship between developing academic skills in more than one language. Many cognitive processes that underlie the ability to read, such as understanding the relationship between spoken and written language and other pre-literacy skills, can be transferable between many languages. What is learned in one language can be learned and reinforced in the other, therefore strengthening the learning for the students!

Cognitive Benefits

There are also cognitive and health benefits in learning a second language. Bilingualism has a positive neurological impact: it’s been shown, for example, to improve working memory. Working memory is that memory which allows us to process, store and update short-term information. It’s that memory that is important for getting things done in the moment, concentrating on a task and following instructions – all important aspects of academic success. Research shows that though sometimes bilinguals are less proficient at vocabulary tasks than their monolingual peers, bilingualism enhances working memory, making bilinguals ‘nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, [and] resolve conflicts’ (Times, July 18, 2013; Morales, Calvo, Bialystock, 2013; Boiche, Armandon, Baudoin, Bellocchi, 2021). These benefits are also reflected in bilingual students’ demonstration of greater non verbal and visual problem solving capacities and flexible thinking.

Though in the first few years of learning a different language, some students may take longer to learn to read and write, after a year or two, the learning discrepancy is corrected and bilingual students actually show academic and cognitive advantages. Bilinguals perform higher scores in cognitive and academic tests, such as standardized tests (Cummins, 1986). In addition, students who learn another language growing up do better than their monolingual peers in math and verbal tests in their native or dominant language!

Long term health and neurological benefits are even associated with raising a bilingual child, such as a ‘reduced age-related decline’ of memory (Schroeder and Marian, 2013) and greater resistance to Alzheimer and other forms of dementia (Times, July 18, 2013).

Cultural Awareness

Last but not least, one of the most important benefits of bilingualism, in my opinion, is that in immersive language programs, students are not just ‘learning’ a language but instead they are learning ‘in’ a language, and these two things are very different. In immersive language programs, students are often exposed to faculty from many different countries and backgrounds. They typically learn not only the words of a language, but also about linguistic differences and cultural differences. So learning ‘in’ a language typically increases cultural awareness and students are more likely to be in a position to better understand differences, appreciate diversity, and understand the nuances of words in a language, ultimately learning to be more effective global citizens!

Pioneering Student-Centered Education

“EBI is a pioneer in 21st century student-centered education. As the world continues to become smaller due to globalization, EBI’s mission and core values become bigger, stronger and more relevant to prepare students for global success in an unpredictable future,” said Dr. Paola Clark, Head of School, Escuela Bilingüe Internacional. Having access to more than one language increasingly allows individuals to more authentically engage with the world around them.

When exposing children to language, the focus should be on intentionality. Whether a native speaker or not, there are a variety of resources available and small changes to be made to help with the introduction. Our public libraries have children literature sections with books in a variety of languages. Whether one is searching for picture books or longer stories, there is a good selection of books, and often music and movies, that families can access. Making simple switches like playing/singing children’s songs and lullabies in another language is also another great way to begin language exposure. Searching community events for children in the target language not only increases language exposure, but finds other families who are making the same efforts. EBI’s Community Programs are a wonderful way to engage with our learner community with activities that include Cuenta Cuentos, a monthly Spanish story time led by one of our prekinder teachers.

Studies have also shown that even learning a second language as an adolescent (11-13 years of age) has many linguistic, cognitive, and cultural benefits as well. To support this, in the Fall of 2020, EBI said “bienvenidos” to its first cohort of middle school students with limited to no prior Spanish experience. The backbone of the EBI middle school program is the world-renowned International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Program (MYP). The MYP provides a framework of learning that encourages students to become innovative, critical and reflective thinkers. It emphasizes intellectual challenge and encourages students to make connections between their studies and the real world. EBI is the only school in the East Bay that is authorized to offer both the Primary Years Program (PYP) and the Middle Years Program (MYP) for the International Baccalaureate (IB) as part of a Spanish-English immersion program. The IB framework focuses on developing internationally-minded young people who are prepared to thrive in a diverse, changing world with character and empathy.

Students entering the language immersion program for middle school at EBI study Spanish as a cohort for 30% of their time and then join the balance of students in the regular Middle Years Program for subjects taught in English. Students have an academically rigorous curriculum and the small class sizes as a cohort allow for personalized learning in supporting both a student’s language acquisition in Spanish and acceleration in English.

“Being multilingual is no longer just a nice add-on, it is now a prerequisite for success in the global economy. Our language programs, combined with our focus on STEM, Global Arts, and our designated Design lab, truly make this an outstanding opportunity for students,” says Principal of EBI Middle School, Raquel Vizcaíno.

We firmly believe it is never too late to start learning another language!

Beatrice V. Balfour, PhD