More than half of the world’s population speaks at least two languages and estimates indicate that nearly 66 percent of children worldwide are raised as bilingual. The world may be on to something. In addition to allowing individuals to more fully participate in an increasingly global economy, bilingualism has been shown to have cognitive benefits. Neuroscience also tells us that children are most open to learning new languages when they are young, so to support a more bilingual society, we need to focus on the role early childhood education can play in bilingual education.
A growing body of research tells us that fostering bilingualism, starting at the youngest ages, can have long-lasting and profound benefits. Study after study shows that bilingualism confers cognitive benefits, even as early as the first year of life. Bilingual babies perform better than their monolingual peers in attention control, problem-solving, perspective taking, and applying known concepts to novel situations—all of which support future learning and school success.
Bilingualism also has economic benefits in adulthood. Bilingual people have greater access to the global market, as demand is increasing for bilingual employees across many industries and sectors. Another study found that children of immigrants who developed strong bilingual and biliterate skills were less likely to drop out of high school, more likely to go to college, and earned an average of $5,400 more a year compared to their peers who lost their home language and speak exclusively English.
In dual language immersion programs, students are taught in both English and the target language (e.g., Spanish or Mandarin), often spending half their class time in each language. These programs demonstrate significant benefits to children’s academic outcomes. This includes both children whose home language is something other than English, and their counterparts whose home language is English. It’s critical to unlock the potential and support all of our children, including the one in four young children who speak a language other than English at home. In fact, strengthening these children’s home language early in life helps them acquire English faster in the long run.
Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have begun to use this research to spur innovative reforms to their education systems. For example, in 2008, Republican lawmakers in Utah began implementing one of the most aggressive language education reforms in the country. Today, nearly 200 schools in the state offer language immersion in Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, French, German, and Russian. The rapid expansion of these programs is due to popularity with families (most schools have wait lists) and the success the program has seen in its short tenure. Students in the dual immersion program perform as well or better in English standardized reading and math tests than their peers in English-only schools. Democratic policymakers in Delaware are on a similar path of reforms to their education system, and though they are at an earlier stage in the process, they have developed kindergarten through 12th grade language immersion pathways for their students in Mandarin and Spanish. These reforms are giving students a competitive edge to operate in the 21st century international economy.
But as bold as these reforms are, we can do better by starting earlier. Research indicates that the earlier our children are exposed to a second language, the better they will do. In fact, cutting-edge neuroscience shows that babies are born with an open mind, ready to learn as many languages as we are ready to expose them to. In that sense, the early education system holds the key to a more bilingual society and a more competitive economy.
Unfortunately, today, we are not doing enough to expose children to rich language learning opportunities that promote bilingualism and biliteracy. Despite the great diversity that our youngest learners bring to the classroom, in most early childhood programs all or most of the instruction provided is only in English. In fact, the norm in the United States is for foreign language to be formally introduced in middle or high school, far beyond when neuroscience tells us is the optimal time for language learning. This simply does not make sense. Why wouldn’t we give our next generation of working Americans a leg up in the world economy through language?
With each passing day, technology makes our world smaller and more interconnected. Our future business leaders, engineers, diplomats, scientists, and teachers spend their days in early childhood programs, today. What we expose them to in those programs will result in a stronger, or weaker, American workforce tomorrow. Language can be a powerful tool to engage in world commerce. Early education can be the key to a more bilingual society, and a more competitive American workforce.