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The Bilingual Advantage

Learning in Spanish and English Has Benefits


“Buenos dias!” the teacher enthusiastically called to her students on the first day of kindergarten. Watching your young daughter look up at you confused and a little scared is difficult for any parent. Fast forward a few months later to the rush of emotions after hearing your 5-year-old speak her first full sentence in a new language — relief, excitement, pride, and the promise of a bright future. She’s on the road to powerful engagement in a multilingual, multicultural, global economy.

An abundance of recent articles has brought attention to the many cognitive and social benefits of bilingualism. The New York Times article “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter,” from March 17, 2012, highlights important advantages to the brain’s “executive functioning,” skills related to planning, problem solving, mental focus, and memory.

In contrast to long-held assumptions that a second language was a hindrance to a child’s academic success, a plethora of recent research has concluded that the opposite is true. Bilingual education programs have been closely examined, and from these studies, certain models have emerged as being far and away most successful.

Researchers from Northwestern University performed a meta-comparison of academic outcomes for both majority and minority language speakers in bilingual immersion schools as well as traditional education programs. They found that bilingual two-way immersion programs benefitted both language groups, not only in literacy but in math as well. For English-language learners, these programs have resulted in greater success in English, helping to close the achievement gap. But study after study has also shown that bilingual programs enhance academic outcomes for native English speakers.

But how can this be, you may say, for my English-speaking child taught in a language she doesn’t understand? First off, English speakers have the advantage of their home language being that of the larger community, providing a consistent source of input and support in varied contexts. But on a neurolinguistic level, languages are thought to rely on a “common underlying proficiency,” a set of cognitive-linguistic skills that provide the basic framework that individual languages are built upon. Thus, skills acquired in this framework support the development of both languages.

In their paper summarizing 18 years of research analyzing over 2 million student records, “The Astounding Effectiveness of Dual Language Education for All,” researchers Collier and Thomas write, “the high academic achievement of the bilingually schooled children is an added benefit that has amazed the parents.”

We are incredibly fortunate to have one such program in our very own community: Adelante Charter School. Adelante is a research-based, two-way Spanish-English immersion program. So far, ACS’s academic results are promising. This year, for example, the school is seeing the results of a strong Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) focus which emphasizes inquiry, hands-on learning, and relevant, real world problem solving. In last year’s STAR science tests, Adelante’s fifth grade achieved the second highest scores in the district, with 78 percent of students scoring at the proficient or advanced levels. Keep in mind that although these children were tested in English, their content was taught in Spanish.

As The Economist sums it up in, “Bringing up baby bilingual,” March 29, 2013: “all this is hot evidence for a mental exercise that could give children a lifelong advantage.”

Sheila Cullen is a bilingual speech-language pathologist and board member of Adelante Charter School, and David Fortson is the father of a kindergarten student at Adelante.

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