The Bilingual Advantage

Learning in Spanish and English Has Benefits

Thursday, February 6, 2014
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“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.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Lo que hacen en Escandinavia parece tener exito.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
February 7, 2014 at 2:41 p.m. (Suggest removal)

As a child, I always wanted to be taught sign language. But I knew of no avenue to pursue such a learning. Say, I've just thought of something. Remember when the study of one of these, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Greek and German (a knowledge of which was mandatory for any study at doctoral level), was essential to a liberal education? Then somewhere along, these very gems were discarded to our cultural peril. Remember?

salsipuedes (anonymous profile)
February 7, 2014 at 4:35 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I absolutely do remember this, and UCSB's German Dept. became Far Eastern languages and eventually German decayed... All part of the general dumbing-down of our culture [remember Allan Bloom's stuff?]. Wonderful languages, but ahhh ... uh ... far too EUROPEAN (and Hebrew from Near East). It's a loss sure, but most of the young are concerned about making a living, not perfecting their French with a tutor or parsing Attic Greek on a park bench.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 7, 2014 at 6:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

It seems to me that people who speak more than one language are less likely to develop dementia. While I can't provide any official "study", my life experience has taught me this. Example's close to me is my friend's mother who will be 86 in June, who learned English in her late teens. If you didn't know anything about her and saw her Facebook postings, you'd think this is someone about 30 years old. To Salsipuedes' point: Sign language--like reading music--is in effect, a second language. To wit: My dad was a musician who could read music, as could all of his musician friends. Of all the people I was surrounded with growing up, only one of those developed dementia, the rest, (including my dad who was 84 when he died) were sharp right till the end and one of them who is at least 85 just sent me an e-mail about John Cleese's humor.

What I'm not clear about however is (assuming the second-language theory staving off dementia) whether this applies if a person grows up with two languages side by side, or learns a second language later in life, and how much later? As I said in my first post however, whatever they're doing in Scandinavia seems to work, and on that thought they start them very young learning 2nd, and often 3rd or 4th languages.

To the point DrDan made: I hear you. You are probably the only person I know of with whom I can practice the little bit of German that I know. I also have been told that German has nuances that most languages--including English--don't have. I remember hearing that this is why Greek was considered better than Latin for literary use as--for example--there are seven different ways to say the word "love". Ironically, I had a friend who was a native German speaker who left me, my parents, (who were extremely literate) and my Mensa Society friend in the dust when we took a 20-question vocabulary quiz that would make the Readers Digest one look like a dumbed-down version. Werner got all 20 of them right. I asked Werner (also fluent in Spanish, and claimed he "got by" in Farsi, Chinese and Indonesian although having heard him speak Farsi, he seemed to have no trouble conversing in that language) how he was able to do so well on the quiz and he explained "I have a background in Latin".

Getting back to DrDan's lament, the irony is that as the post WW2 governments of Northern Europe have made English learning a requirment, there is little *practical* need for learning German, and if you go to The Netherlands, or most parts of Scandinavia, you will be hard pressed to find someone who does *not* speak English. English has become so widespread that it has become the common language of these places. I remember seeing an interview with the Swedish band ABBA on a Dutch t.v. station, the the whole thing was done with everyone speaking English. Having said all this, they do appreciate when we make the effort to speak to them in their languages when we go there.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
February 7, 2014 at 8 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Learning French in high school is when I really learned English. That is: language construction and why there were "rules".

Which then made learning other languages easier, at least within the Western European group. I now get around in French, German, Italian and Spanish because I was forced to take at first to take French ….. way back then.

The language arts were part of being broadly educated back then, for reasons far more than the immediate advantages of finding a railway station when in Paris or ordering a drink.

Through command of their words and how they put them together, "foreign" languages taught history, culture, and human insight as well. Who can beat German for nuanced, emotional contradiction?

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 7, 2014 at 8:01 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Excellent post Foofighter. When you learn by the rules (as I had to when I learned Spanish in my 20's) you not only learn about past subjunctives and other points of grammar, but also the fact that there are concepts that exist in other languages that don't exist in ours. For me that reflexive part of speech was an eye opener, and the most obvious is avoiding the dangers of word-for-word substitution in going from one language to the other.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
February 7, 2014 at 8:05 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This three minute video/song explaines the situation up in Canada where the English/French controversy rages.

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
February 7, 2014 at 8:22 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I would like to believe that a full understanding of German produces the same result the study of geometry does: a disciplined mind! Please don't ask me to prove it. But from my initial understanding of German, it proceeds in linear fashion in writing and in speaking. So that one doesn't have to ask the annoying, "See what I'm saying?" The structure of German is so logical that what is being said is quite straightforward. There are things in English, on the other hand, that are puzzling constructs. For example, adult children. How can adults be children? A felon is said to have preyed on "young boys." Doesn't "boy" imply "young"? I came across another redundancy recently, "...a white European." Wot? Did I miss something in my hurried study of anthropology? Is there any other kind? And lastly, a shallow understanding of a foreign language: Don't call me negro. Call me black. lol!!!

salsipuedes (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2014 at 1:01 p.m. (Suggest removal)

There's a real joy in learning and knowing another language, and it stimulates the mind in positive ways.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2014 at 1:44 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I'm one of those bilingual babies referenced in that Economist article. Picking up a 3rd language in junior high was much more difficult than the first two ... made worse by the fact there just weren't that many people to speak French with (I didn't discover Pacific Crepes until I was an adult).

Do your children a favor and let them learn a second language and music as well.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2014 at 3 p.m. (Suggest removal)

German is very challenging, and I cannot actually read it except in the simplest version. Try THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN auf Deutsch! Yikes. There is a logic and precision about this tongue that reminds us of the Enlightenment and of some fusion of Romanticism (early Goethe and Schiller) and scientific thinking. German dominated Nobel Prizes in the sciences in early part of 20th century, yet they fell to the evil siren song of THAT MAN. Bilingualism and even trilingualism has to be great for the brain. In Classical Greece the school topics were Greek language (Homer), math, and music. How intelligent!
Schadenfreude, Zeitgeist, Weltschmerz...great words.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2014 at 3:42 p.m. (Suggest removal)


foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2014 at 3:48 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.

(Mark Twain)

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2014 at 3:54 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Weltanschauung. Uebermensch. Lebensraum (ugh!). And modern Germany, foo, is a mixed economy with very strong socialism AND they maintain worker unions well; the incentive to work very hard has NOT been lost, and don't try foisting it off on the ethnic thing that Teutons are innately superior, they've been down that road, remember foo (please: avoid Godwin's Law here). The distribution of wealth there also shows how horribly skewed our Gini coefficient is, with so much of the money flying to the very top, where in fact you wish to reside, hence the crazed and endless comments.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2014 at 5:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The shared work ethic is what makes Northern European "socialism" still work, though creaky. There is a disturbing rise of skinheads as well and immigrant-directed violence, if this mere mention does not tick off Godwin.

And sharing a centuries long feudal heritage unlike the US, where they are used to having the King providing for their basic needs. Including the immigrant Turks who may soon become the new ethnic majority in Deutschland, also share that similar feudal heritage. Not so in the good old USA, which a bit of an outlier on all these counts.

Sorry DD, you so desperately want wealth redistribution, government run socialism in the US. I don't think it can or will happen.

Does it seem like a contradiction that so many Germans showed up in the list of 85 richest people in the world: BMW and grocery store chain owners? There is a lot of very high end wealth in your Teutonic workers paradise.

And people do live far more simply at the lower ends of the economic scale as well. Small, cold water walk-up studios are normal for the general population. No cars, few clothes and things. What we might call "slums" here. They are just tidier, which is also part of the German nature so it does not stand out as much as the spiritual impoverishment does in the US. But even that is changing - grunge is now part of every German city as well, particularly where the non-German ethnics hang out.

What is your Plan B DD, because a life time of class envy and class resentments here in the US waiting for socialism is quite frankly not a good Plan A. Schade.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2014 at 5:43 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The only class I resent are those with no class, they come in all economic strata.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2014 at 5:52 p.m. (Suggest removal)

German genius once again proved itself in the engineering and design of the Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman series which I first saw during a stroll on State Street in the early 60s. Mein Gott in himmel, I thought to myself, what on earth is that? A luxury hotel on wheels or simply a yacht in dry dock? There was absolutely nothing at that time that could compete with the design and engineering. Alas I faced the reality it would only be mine in dreams!

salsipuedes (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2014 at 7:14 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Could not agree more. It's absolutely a huge benefit.

realitycheck88 (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2014 at 7:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

hilarious, foo!

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 9, 2014 at 5:04 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Ever notice how ppl whose English is mexly accented are much less likely to use subjunctive than native English speakers? Odd, that. I seem to recall a page-long list of situations where subjunctive is required in Spanish. But who can blame them, when US English is sliding toward pidgin/Ebonics?

Soon, public school teachers will be red-penning traditional English when Ebonics could have been employed. Hey, it's about communication, after all. And it's imperative that Ebonics BE spoken correctly, right? Of course. Subjunctive is usually found in articulated sentences anyway, and who needs that sh**?

Ah, but now I'm employing "micro-aggression" and arrant racism. UCLA grad students recently staged a sit-in because students of color had their writing assignments corrected for grammar:

Teach English speakers Spanish? Sure, but first improve the minds of Ebonics and Spanish speakers. Our collective future is at stake.

Adonis_Tate (anonymous profile)
February 9, 2014 at 6:37 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Arright, I concede that Ebonics is a dialect designed to facilitate the inflection of speech with nuances of attitude and emotion that are much harder to impose onto polysyllabic English, and so Ebonics serves a noble purpose. Also, the concrete imagery is poetic. (Do these observations make me a racist, ha ha?)

And imposing standard English instruction on speakers who are down is another way of promoting bilingualism, nicht wahr?

Adonis_Tate (anonymous profile)
February 9, 2014 at 7:19 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Interesting conversation, with brief mention of the patois used in many American English--speaking subcultures. But in my study of languages, this much is true. Or at least I think it's true. And that is the Spanish I've been in earshot of, spoken by the black Spanish speaker, including those at the lower end of the social spectrum, is almost always syntactically consistent with the Spanish spoken by the white Spanish speaker, in sharp contrast to the black English speaker at the lower end of the social spectrum to his white English speaker. One element is of critical importance to me in language acquisition is the use of the subjunctive (I love the subjective in all its applications, e.g., contrary to fact, implied futurity....). The black Spanish speaker, as a collective, is more adapt at his adoptive language, Spanish, than his black counterpart in his adoptive language, English. Fortunately, there is a groundswell of support among fellow Spanish speakers, so errors in grammar are corrected at once. Even without such a support, I was impressed one day on public transportation when I overheard a black Spanish speaking mother correct her child who had said, "Mira, mama, la ventana esta ABRIDA." The mother gently corrected, "No, m'hijo, la ventana esta ABIERTA." I was impressed. Why? Because I speculated she could've had no more than an eighth grade education, if that. I noted, too, that there is absolutely no subject/verb misalignment heard coming from many English-speaking subcultures. But on a larger view of Spanish speakers, I jumped to this leap. That thanks to St. Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuits did a remarkable job in language instruction, "evangelizing," if you will, among all classes of cultural newcomers to the language since all seemingly are well grounded in Spanish syntax in contrast to cultural newcomers to English.

salsipuedes (anonymous profile)
February 9, 2014 at 8:12 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The article posted by Adonis_Tate hits the nail right on the head per the politicization of our university culture. I used to regret not having gone to college, but perhaps the conjunction of such propogandazing with my indoctinization from the twelve-year educational assembly line known as public education may have eradicated what little critical thinking skills I had left.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
February 10, 2014 at 1:34 a.m. (Suggest removal)

"When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all. (F# to B-major musical interlude) But my lack of education hasn't hurt me none, I can read the writing on the wall".

-Paul Simon- (From his 1973 song "Kodachrome")

billclausen (anonymous profile)
February 10, 2014 at 1:36 a.m. (Suggest removal)


billclausen (anonymous profile)
February 11, 2014 at 2:25 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 11, 2014 at 6:28 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Wonderful conversation! I, too, benefitted greatly from studying French and Latin in high school, wishing now (but not then!) to have started in elementary school. Having both French and Latin helped me later learn Russian. ...Using none of them now, they're mostly forgotten but helpful in beginning a study of Spanish.

It will be interesting to see if the Adelante students do better than their one-language counterparts. That 87% of SB City College students are below college level in English is shocking:

at_large (anonymous profile)
February 11, 2014 at 10:16 a.m. (Suggest removal)

agree at_large that the 87% figure is horrendous and very sad, and must be remedied, but maybe it's not really so "shocking" since Calif. is so very low on state funding per students (yes, it has improved after Prop 30) and we aren't back to 2008 levels. Those who will fill this thread with their invective and detestation of teachers and teachers' unions will use the 87% figure to bolster their privatization arguments. Sad.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 11, 2014 at 10:40 a.m. (Suggest removal)

California spends 50% of its state general revenues on K-14, and as the above SBCC numbers show SBCC (13-14) gets short-changed for every student it has to teach K-12 remedial skills.

This means K-12 is getting an even larger share of the K-14 dollar, which K-12 refuses to admit when it howls constantly for more money.

California is #3 in teachers salaries out of 50 states, and #46 out of 50 in student outcomes. Let that inescapable fact sink in. We are getting nothing in return for our huge state investment in education. Nothing.

Please explain why throwing even more money at California teachers is going to change anything. California also ranks very badly in its teacher-preparation programs, particularly CSU which trains the bulk of them. Yet once they obtain tenure after two perfunctory "probation" years, they are locked into the system for life.

There is a lawsuit underway right now filed by students who claim the teacher-protection provisions in the Democratic legislator dominated Calif EdCode violate their civil rights. You can follow this on StudentsMatter.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 11, 2014 at 10:52 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Take a good look at your property tax bill.

Add up how many parcel taxes and bond issues are going to Santa Barbara Unified (or Elementary or High School) Districts, on top of the 50% cut K-12 automatically gets from all state general revenues.

When looking for the "costs of education" and claims we are not paying enough, be sure to see what other sources are on top of state funding and more importantly where the money we do spend is going.

Hint: CalSTRS teacher pensions over-promised and is now $80 billion dollars in the hole to match those promises made during the go-go years by elected officials who owed their jobs to the California Teachers Association (CTA) union, or their affiliates.

Making up that huge unfunded pension liability strips out more present dollars from state funding for education every year, as baby boomer teachers start retiring - average pension is $53,000 a year for life.

And CalSTRS does not have enough money to meet its obligations which means your local school district has to make up the difference out of the additional money CalSTRS is now demanding.

Pensions promises are not to be broken lightly; but neither is our promise to educate our students today far better than 46 out of 50.

Something is wrong when the teachers that failed to educate our students waltz off with guaranteed pensions the state can no longer fund.

Who did you vote for on your local school boards when you had a chance? Do you even know who sits on this powerful board locally?

Who did you vote for State Superintendent of Education and who did you vote for Assemblyman (Williams) and state Senator (Jackson) and Congresswoman (Capps): 100% funded, backed and endorsed by the teacher unions.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 11, 2014 at 11:01 a.m. (Suggest removal)

First Five - Tobacco taxes for California pre-school programs started in 1998 - 16 years ago. We should be seeing benefits from this program since it promised better life-time outcomes for its enrolled students. But we are not. Was Prop 10 First Five more "education" money down a rat hole?

So add the billions of First Five dollars raised since 1998 to the amount this state spends on education. Yet our students continue to rank near the bottom on nationwide education markers. (46 out of 50)

Sources of the education dollar in this state, which allows our teachers to be the third highest paid teachers in the nation:

1. 50% of all general revenues going to K-14, with more of that amount every year going to postHS graduation remedial education in math and english.

2. Property taxes, supplemental parcel taxes and long-term bond issues.

3. First Five Tobacco taxes

4. Federal grants and supplements

5. Charitable Foundations and local fund-raising.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 11, 2014 at 11:18 a.m. (Suggest removal)

foo wah wah same old same old, dude....brayin' in the wind.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 11, 2014 at 1:04 p.m. (Suggest removal)

To billclausen, re: dementia:

SCullen (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 8:06 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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