Parents, especially in today’s hyper-competitive world, constantly seek ways to improve their children’s future academic and professional prospects. From listening to Mozart in the womb, to enrolling their young charges in elite preschools, there’s no shortage of lengths that parents will go to in order to give their kids a leg up in this complex, modern world. One skill that parents often overlook is bilingualism. Of course, you probably know intuitively that learning a second language can widen your “skill set” and improve your chances of getting a job. But there’s more to bilingualism than just that. If you aren’t convinced about the value of getting your kids started on a second language as soon as possible, consider the following:
1. Bilingualism improves executive function, especially in children.
“Executive function” is an important function in the brain that governs such activities as planning, controlling impulsivity, and staying focused for a task until completion, while discarding irrelevant information. Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs, and Steel fame published an article in the journal Science which focused on the way that bilingualism greatly enhances executive function. This is especially true of children, and the improved executive control is greater the more truly fluent an individual is in both languages.
2. Bilingualism may reduce the chances of dementia later in life.
Of course, although our focus here is children, knowing two or more languages can have lifelong benefits. A recent University of California-San Diego study, cited in this New York Times article, found that those with “higher degrees” of bilingualism experienced the onset of dementia and other Alzheimer’s symptoms much later in life. Bilingualism is basically thought to engage the brain in such a way that it keeps it “in shape,” as it were.
3. Bilingualism has a much greater influence in the workforce than you would think.
When I first graduated from college, the job market was particularly rough. My peers and I all struggled to find work that fit our skills and interests. But you know what? I’m not exaggerating those who found work more quickly all had one thing in common. We were all multilingual from an early age. Don’t just take my word for it, however. Check out this Brain Track article, which explains the growing demand of bilingual workers.
4. Bilingualism improves memory.
You probably don’t have to be told that having a good memory is advantageous. After all, so much of what we do, whether at work or school, is dependent on having a sharp memory in order to succeed. Several studies, like this one, have demonstrated that bilingualism has a profoundly positive effect on episodic, semantic, and working memory.
5. Bilingualism fosters a greater and more sensitive understanding of the world.
We can talk all day about the positive effects bilingualism can have on an individual. But ultimately, what bilingualism comes down to is something more than just the sum of its attendant benefits. It’s all about understanding the full spectrum of diversity in this world, and knowing on a deep and visceral level that everyone is different. Grasping that the world both within us and around us can be interpreted and described in different ways helps children grow into mature and caring adults.
Raising bilingual children, especially if you aren’t necessarily bilingual yourself, of course, can be difficult. If either you or your partner knows a different language well, try speaking the other language on a daily basis. Consider enrolling your child in a bilingual school, or one that strongly supports bilingual education. Hiring a nanny or babysitter who only knows another language is another great way of introducing your children to the wonderful world of bilingualism. Whatever you do, make learning a second language a priority. It might just make or break your child’s future.
Can you suggest other ways bilingual skills can benefit children? Leave a comment below.