Prior to the 1960s, some education experts in the United States viewed bilingualism as 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, curriculum and instruction specifically for English language learners (ELLs) is an ongoing development in schools. These improvements to ESL education are needed to accommodate the growing number of ELL students in the U.S. The National Center for Education Statistics reports there were five million ESL learners enrolled in public schools as of fall 2018.
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.
In a study to investigate how babies can easily learn multiple languages, researchers found that living in a bilingual home helps children develop greater flexibility in acquiring new information, even before they learn to speak at all.
In addition to strengthening information acuity, 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 Pre-School and School-Age Children
There are also many benefits of ESL for young 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 ESL students 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. Learners 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. When dual language learners 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 strong ties with their communities while making friends with a greater variety of classmates.
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 study on neurobiology and brain reserve in aging populations reports that bilingualism may help the cognitive abilities of aging people by delaying the onset of symptoms associated with neurodegeneration by up to five years. In the course of the study, researchers concluded that the older a person is, the more bilingualism may have a relative protective effect on the brain’s language network.
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. Researchers have studied the role of bilingualism and biculturalism as assets in positive psychology and concluded that the positive factors include 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 ELLs can bridge the gap between their families and the rest of the world.
Academic achievement — In addition to the findings by the Department of Education, additional observations show bilingual students pick up certain pre-reading skills faster than their monolingual classmates. Bilingualism is also associated with many other cognitive benefits that translate into academic achievement, like stronger multitasking skills, creativity, and working memory.
Future employment opportunities — Bilingual adults can enjoy more employment opportunities than their monolingual colleagues. The demand for well-educated bilinguals continues to grow worldwide as the global business model expands.
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 online through Lamar University, you can earn an advanced degree in teacher leadership while preparing for ESL education certification.