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Early Bilingual Study Boosts Cognitive Skills
By Heather Hewett | July 4, 2010

In the last days of school, as I helped my first-grade daughter with her math homework (adding and subtracting coins, in English and Spanish), I was also figuring out some math word problems of my own. 

Question No. 1: Given that school districts have already cut their budgets to the bone, and not even a Hollywood psychic could figure out what's happening in Albany, how much money will schools be left with? Question No. 2: How will cutting-edge school programs like the study of second languages in primary grades survive — and how will they thrive?

Now, I know there will be many losers in the ongoing fiscal crisis, and the study of second languages in public elementary schools might not strike everyone as a high priority at a time of budgetary constraint. Perhaps it even seems like a luxury. After all, foreign languages at the lower levels aren't tested under No Child Left Behind, so why spend money on them?

Yet this kind of thinking doesn't add up, because any short-term savings are outweighed by long-term loss. Just look at the rest of the world, including China, Thailand and throughout the European Union, where the early study of second languages is not viewed as superfluous. Instead, it's viewed as a necessary investment in the future, a logical step toward preparing students to work and live in a globalized world. (Indeed, the costs can be minimal. In our district, an initial grant enabled the teachers to create a dual-language program starting in kindergarten. Now, the program costs nothing additional to run — although fiscal pressures have forced the district to cut Spanish-language teachers in the general curriculum.)

Making agile brains

Researchers are only beginning to understand the benefits of bilingualism. Active scientific research on the brain suggests that its payback extends far beyond mastery of a second language, particularly when acquired at an early age. Scientists at York University in Ontario have found that pre-secondary students who study a second language show enhanced cognitive abilities, including skills in problem solving, critical thinking, cognitive flexibility and metacognition. Researchers are exploring links between second-language study and higher achievement on standardized tests in all subjects, including math. A long-term study in Massachusetts found that students who studied a second language outperformed those who did not — with gains increasing over the years, and the greatest differences occurring after seven years of instruction.

This research has debunked the old myths that learning more than one language might confuse children or delay their linguistic development. Consider a 2004 study in Nature, which found that being bilingual changes the structure of the brain. The bilingual speakers in the sample had denser brains, with the greatest effect in people who had learned a second language before age 5. (Gray matter density in the brain is associated with language, memory and attention skills.) So while learning Spanish might help my middle-aged brain stay agile, it has a far greater effect on my daughter's developing brain every day at school.

Teach them young

Yet while early childhood presents the best time for learning a second language, foreign-language study in elementary school has decreased over the past decade. The Center for Applied Linguistics surveyed elementary schools across the country and found that only 25 percent of schools taught a second language in 2008, down 6 percent from 1997 and nearly eradicating gains made in the previous 10 years. This drop has occurred despite national rhetoric and initiatives promoting proficiency in foreign languages. Whatever the reasons for this disconnect between research and the curriculum — the lingering habits of our national monolingualism, the unintended impact of No Child Left Behind on second-language study — we cannot lose this precious opportunity for teaching foreign languages to our children. After all, they must learn to live, work and play in a diverse, multicultural world.

According to early census estimates, 50 percent of all 5- to 9-year-olds in Westchester County are minorities. In our school district, Tarrytown, my daughter goes to school with Spanish-speaking children from all over Latin America. Her program consists of a two-way immersion curriculum in which teachers use the second language half of the time in the instruction of all academic subjects — an innovative approach hailed by educators and researchers alike. In my daughter's world, it's normal for students to be learning another language at the same time that they are learning their native tongue. Her classroom provides an aspirational model of how to build a multilingual community supported by committed teachers — one that I hope can be made available to all students in her school. It's what convinced my family to move to our town, and it's central to how we understand our membership in our local community.

It all adds up

If this sounds idealistic, these are ideals within our grasp. In a recent editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "English is Not Enough," former SUNY French professor Catherine Porter asks us to imagine what college would look like if all entering students had 12 or 13 years of foreign-language study behind them. With this background, students would be much better equipped to "compare and contrast" their own language and culture with others. They would prove more adept at critical thinking, one of the most important skills students develop in college and take with them into the workplace. They would cultivate the linguistic flexibility needed to succeed in the world — and at home.

As a college professor, I believe we must work toward this vision. Parents, teachers and administrators should join forces to make second-language study a priority —and government at the local, state and federal levels must dedicate resources to make it possible.When you consider what's at stake, it's the only kind of math that adds up.