Bilingual Bliss

Discover the benefits of early foreign language exposure

By Susan M. Botich



Today, for children to grow to be successful adults in our global community, mastering at least one foreign language is of the highest importance, according to Meera Rupp, Director of Bend International School.

“Languages, culture, and diversity are huge issues now in education,” said Rupp. “The U.S. Department of Education currently has a priority of building diversity in all of our schools, starting not only with the students, but also the teachers and the staff. If we want our students to be global citizens equipped with 21st century skills, then they need cultural competence and world language experiences to get them there. Language immersion programs are becoming more popular in the United States and in Oregon.”

One component of being an International School, according to Rupp, is having a World Language Program.“International Schools recognize the value and importance of speaking another language, and all International Schools have second or third language programs as part of their curriculum,” said Rupp. “Bend International School has the goal of promoting diversity and global competence within our community, and learning another language is an important part of this.”

Bend parent Nancy Engelhard, who started teaching her two children from birth to speak both Spanish and English, enthusiastically agreed.“I think, in this day and age, with the global economy, it’s huge,” Englehard said. “You have to be able to reach out in different ways, and it shows people that you care about them. It goes a long way in business, healthcare, law—everything.”

Sara Swedlund, a fellow parent and math teacher at Bear Creek Elementary, a bilingual immersion program school in Bend, also agreed.“We decided to put our kids in an immersion program,” Swedlund said. “The goal was for them to become biliterate by the 12th grade. It just opens up opportunities as they move on through their lives.”

According to Kinsey Martin, Dual Immersion Program Coordinator for Bend-La Pine Schools, the school district chose to implement the research-based Two-Way Immersion Program because of the win-win equity and enrichment benefits for all students, both native Spanish-speaking and English-speaking, she said.

“For native Spanish-speaking students, there is ample evidence demonstrating that two-way immersion programs are the most effective educational model for acquiring English, while closing the achievement gap in content areas like reading and math,” said Martin. “For native English-speaking students, this model is an opportunity to acquire a second language and develop strong bilingualism at no expense to their academic achievement.”

Starting foreign language instruction early, even right from birth is very advantageous, according to local professional nanny, Azucena Rodriguez.

“Young children are like a sponge and absorb everything, so they can easily learn a second language and they can speak it very well,” said Rodriguez.  “Children absorb information easier than adults do. The disadvantage that a lot of adults have is lack of motivation, while children are motivated to learn the language to be able to communicate.”

According to Neuroscience for Kids consultant, Melissa Lee Phillips, in her article published in 2002 by Washington State University, substantial evidence suggests the existence of a critical learning period for first languages. A critical period for language is defined as the time period during which a person must be exposed to the spoken language in order to best learn the language. In most cases, if a person is not exposed to a language during the critical period, he or she will never be able to speak the language as well as someone who learned language normally.

The benefits of children learning another language at an early age are significant in how they develop academically overall, according to UNC Chapel Hill School of Education’s article by Bernadette Morris.

“Research has shown that children who have studied a foreign language in elementary school achieve higher scores on standardized tests in reading, language arts, and mathematics than those who have not,” Morris wrote. “The results show that regardless of their race, sex, or academic level, students in foreign language classes outperformed those who were not taking foreign languages. Furthermore, students who have studied a foreign language develop greater cognitive skills in such areas as mental flexibility, creativity, divergent thinking and higher order thinking skills.”

“For children in the United States, it is particularly important to learn Spanish,” Rodriguez added.

“Spanish is the second most spoken language in the whole world, so, when you put that in perspective, you can only imagine all of the doors that this opens. Pretty much anywhere you travel you can find a Spanish speaker and really connect with them.”

A primary concern for many parents, when considering teaching their children bilingually, is that the child will become confused and lag behind in language development. Research on this subject actually reveals contrary evidence, according to Krista Byers-Heinlein of Concordia University, and Casey Lew-Williams of Northwestern University in their article published in Learning Landscapes, 2013.

Again, the research is clear: “bilingual infants readily distinguish their two languages and show no evidence of confusion,” the article states. “Infants can discriminate rhythmically dissimilar languages like English and French at birth, and by age four months they can tell even rhythmically similar languages like French and Spanish apart. Instead of being confused, it seems that bilingual infants are sensitive to information that distinguishes their languages.”

After establishing a firm foundation in a second
language, learning more languages becomes much easier, according to Rodriguez.

“My daughter’s first language is Spanish, and she learned English in school,” Rodriguez said. “From there, it has been easier for her to learn French, and she is currently learning Thai. Her teacher said that because she knows Spanish it is easier for her to pronounce new words that are difficult for English speakers to pronounce. So, once you have the basic roots of a language, it is so much easier to just keep on learning new languages.”


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