Studies show that having two languages improves cognition, enriches minds
Encouraging bilingual children to speak their original language while they’re learning English may make those who believe only English should be spoken in American schools cringe, but a group of Rutgers graduate students thinks the practice will make youngsters smarter and more successful as they grow.
RU Bilingual, founded by graduate students in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Spanish and Portuguese, is affiliated with an international organization, Bilingualism Matters, dedicated to promoting the benefits of bilingualism around the world. RU Bilingual reaches out to elementary and middle school parents, teachers and students with workshops and assemblies that try to get across the central idea that two languages are better than one for their children.
“Educators used to assume that children could only learn one language at a time, and that holding onto their first language would hinder them as they tried to learn a second one,” said Jose Camacho, the faculty adviser to RU Bilingual and professor of Spanish and Portuguese. “But studies conducted over the past 25 years have shown that kids who receive instruction in their first language while learning a second language do better each year in that second language.”
RU Bilingual tries to counteract whatever negative ideas parents and children have about being bilingual, and to convince them instead that their lives will be richer and more interesting if they speak at least two languages.
Long-term studies have linked the ability to speak two or more languages to higher levels of cognitive brain function; students are more adept at solving problems, planning and other mentally demanding tasks.
There may also be a financial advantage. “Research shows a $3,000 annual benefit in wages for bilingual speakers after college,” Camacho says. “Bilingual education should be seen as an enrichment program.”
So far, RU Bilingual’s efforts have been concentrated in Highland Park, where many elementary school students are native speakers of Chinese, and at the middle school in Red Bank, where 70 percent of the students are native speakers of Spanish.
At the Red Bank Middle School, where earlier this year RU Bilingual conducted a workshop for parents and staff, a recent assembly featured graduate students from RU-Bilingual. Two doctoral students, Anne Lingwall and Ben Kinsella, led about 200 middle school students through exercises designed to make them aware of how widespread and useful bilingualism is. Lingwall asked the Red Bank students how many of them were bilingual, and almost every hand went up.
On the screen in front of the auditorium, Lingwall flashed a map-of-the-world slide that showed that most of the children in the world have at least some knowledge of a language other than their first language. “It’s normal to be bilingual,” she said.
Kinsella told the middle schoolers that the effort to maintain one language while learning another one stretched one's mental muscles. "It's like having a gym in your brain," he said.
Relying on U.S. Census data, Lingwall told the middle schoolers that roughly 20 percent of U.S. residents have some facility in more than one language, and 17 percent are bilingual in Monmouth County, where Red Bank is located.
“So you guys have a huge advantage!” Lingwall told them.
There was no doubt that the middle schoolers were aware of this advantage and proud of it. At the beginning of the assembly, the principal had trouble introducing RU Bilingual. Three times, she stepped to the microphone and said, “RU Bilingual...” and three times, the whole audience roared back, “YES!”
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