Prior to the 1960s, some in the United States considered bilingualism a handicap. Experts believed that children fluent in two languages had to spend a lot of energy on distinguishing between the two languages. In addition, some educators thought that learning or knowing two languages would be confusing. Others suspected that it would hinder development, possibly resulting in a lower IQ.
A lot has changed since then. Experts recognize that the benefits of English as a Second Language (ESL) far outweigh any drawbacks. In fact, schools are developing curricula specifically for English language learners (ELLs). According to the U.S. Department of Education, “ESL programs are the fastest-growing component of state-administered adult education programs.”
The Benefits of Speaking Two Languages Starts Early
The ability to speak two languages neither predicts heightened intelligence nor makes someone smarter. However, there are several educational benefits of ESL.
These benefits may start in infancy. Cognitive neuroscientist Jacques Mehler and researcher Agnes Kovacs compared a bilingual baby’s reaction to sound cues with a monolingual baby’s reaction to the same sound. The bilingual baby showed an “advantage in thinking that involved so-called executive function, which helps regulate abilities such as being able to start and stop actions.” Although it is difficult to translate this early-learning advantage into success in school, Mehler concludes that early bilingual learning certainly has no negative effects.
In addition to strengthening executive function, children who hear two languages as they start to learn sounds have an early-learning advantage. Infants who hear more than one language are better able to develop additional sounds and words as they learn to speak, which gives them an edge in speech and language development.
The Benefits for School-Age Children
There are also many benefits of ESL for school-age children. According to the U.S. Department of Education, compared to their monolingual peers, bilinguals have an easier time with the following cognitive tasks:
- Understanding math concepts and solving word problems.
- Developing strong thinking skills.
- Using logic.
- Focusing, remembering and making decisions.
- Thinking about language.
- Learning other languages.
In addition, while bilinguals are learning a new language, they are also acquiring a blocking technique that helps them choose the right word from one language while blocking the same word from the other. Students use this same technique to ignore distracting information while working on classroom assignments.
There are also some interesting social-emotional benefits of ESL for school children. One is tied to the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on a specific task or direction. When bilinguals experience or witness difficult interpersonal interactions, they can better understand both sides of a situation. Because they can block out what they already know, they can focus on a viewpoint other than their own or see both sides of an issue.
In addition, students who speak two languages can maintain stronger ties with their communities as well as make friends with a greater variety of children.
The Benefits for Adults and the Aging
The benefits of ESL are also evident in older populations. As people age, they lose the ability to perform complex tasks. The brain function needed to plan, schedule and multitask appears to diminish, and older people are less able to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances. A 2013 Journal of Neuroscience study reported that “lifelong bilingualism attenuates age-related declines in perceptual task switching.” Moreover, according to researcher Brian Gold, the study found that “bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors.”
Another exciting discovery in recent studies indicates that bilingualism may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. While working with monolinguals and bilinguals at York University in Toronto, psycholinguist Ellen Bialystok discovered that “bilinguals showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s some four to five years after monolinguals with the same disease pathology.”
The Benefits of ESL Classes
The benefits of ESL often start in the classroom. A well-designed ESL program fosters English language acquisition but not at the expense of a student’s native language. The Intercultural Development Research Association encourages the maintenance and retention of native languages for several reasons, including personal identity, family and community connections, academic achievement and future employment opportunities.
Personal identity — A well-structured ESL class, taught by an engaging and empathetic teacher, will prioritize students’ personal identities. There is inherent pride in knowing the language of your culture and heritage. When an ESL class teaches both academic and social English while preserving students’ fluency in their native languages, the students develop a sense of historic identity and cultural connection.
Family and community connections — It is also important to maintain a student’s original language in neighborhoods where two or more languages are prevalent. As both children and adult students learn English, the benefit of ESL is that they can communicate with native-speaking friends and family within the community while reaching out to people who communicate only in English. These ESL students can bridge the gap between their families and the rest of the world.
Academic achievement — Studies have proven that students who participate in ESL classes that preserve native languages excel academically. Carey Myles, author of Raising Bilingual Children, said that “Bilingual language skills have also been correlated with improved cognitive performance in children. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., bilinguals take a more creative approach to problem-solving, read earlier on average than their monolingual peers, and score higher on standardized tests like the SAT.”
Future employment opportunities — Bilingual adults can enjoy more employment opportunities than their monolingual colleagues. The demand for well-educated bilinguals continues to grow worldwide.
Changes in global financial and social climates continue to reveal the benefits of ESL programs. An experienced educator can adapt to this trend by earning a master’s degree in ESL education. By taking the required courses for a degree program like the one offered at Lamar University Online, you can earn an advanced degree in teacher leadership while preparing for ESL education certification.
Have a question or concern about this article? Please contact us.