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The Lifelong Benefits of a Bilingual Education

German International School LogoJanuary is a busy time of the year when parents of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten-aged children evaluate their education options for the coming fall. Choosing the right school for your child can certainly be a challenging endeavor that raises a lot of questions. If you are interested in giving your child a bilingual education, you add even more questions to the mix. Will a second language confuse or complicate the learning process? Will it make it difficult for your child to keep up with his or her monolingual peers academically? If you’re certain you want a bilingual school, how do you choose the right program? For that matter, do bilingual schools with academically excellent college preparatory programs even exist in the New York area?

Current research has revolutionized the way we think about bilingualism. Science has shown us that from infancy until about the age of twelve children’s brains are hard-wired to acquire language. Recent studies have revealed that being bilingual has a significant effect on a child’s brain, improving cognitive skills not just related to language. Acquiring a second language actually improves the brain’s ability for “outside the box” thinking, innovative problem solving, and performing mentally demanding tasks like staying focused and holding complex information for long periods of time.

A 2013 Northwestern University study showed that bilingual children have reduced levels of anxiety, loneliness and poor self-esteem. Bilingual education not only allows students to become fluent in another language, but it also creates a bicultural environment where students come to understand and appreciate different traditions, values and viewpoints. And positive effects of bilingualism were even observed into the twilight years as elderly bilinguals showed a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Students who begin a bilingual education early, ideally in pre-kindergarten, and continue through high school obtain the greatest and longest-lasting benefits. A fourth grade student who attends a German language class on Saturdays may speak and read passably well in German and English, but he is not yet fully bilingual or biliterate. A twelfth grade student who began a full-time bilingual education in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten will not only be bilingual and biliterate but also bicultural and able to function at a high level in both languages.

The benefits of bilingualism extend beyond academics. In a study published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT economist Albert Saiz calculated that employees who speak a second language fluently earn more over their professional lifetimes than those who speak only one language. But not all languages are compensated equally. In fact, Mr. Saiz discovered that employees whose second language is German are paid $128,000 more over their professional lifetime than are bilingual speakers of French and Spanish. Mr. Saiz believes that the strength of Germany’s trade-driven and technology-based economy plays a big role in driving the global demand for workers who can speak German fluently. This demand coupled with the small supply of educated employees who are genuinely fluent and literate in German (compared with the relative glut of workers who speak French and Spanish) further fuels the salary gains.

So, do excellent independent bilingual schools exist in the Tri-State area? I can assure you they do! How, then, does bilingual education really work and what should you be looking for?

There are two primary types of bilingual programs: dual-language programs and two-way programs. I’ll cover each here.

Dual-language programs provide instruction separately in two languages and integrate language majority and language minority students, where one of the languages is their native language and the other is secondary. Both languages are used during class time, but typically only one is used during predetermined periods of time. The proportions for implementation vary by the model, topic, time, and teacher. The four popular models are: 90-10, 80-20, 50-50, and 70-30. The time blocks are organized around the instructional topics (e.g. English or physics), the content areas, or by the teachers’ team-teaching schedules. The bottom line of this concept is this: one class, one instructional unit, using two languages.

Two-way bilingual programs are typically implemented in elementary school, but there are programs that offer it for pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. Schools that offer two-way language programs provide students more time to deepen their understanding and mastery of both languages. It may take a little longer for the bilingual students to achieve the same academic level as their monolingual peers, but generally by sixth grade those bilingual students outperform students who speak only one language and continue to excel academically through the college years.

The power of language is undeniable. And in a world that grows more connected and interdependent by the day, learning to speak and read fluently in more than one language has lifelong personal and professional benefits.

References

Christoffels, I., de Haan, A., Steenbergen, L., van den Wildenberg, & Colzato, L. (2014). Two is better than one: bilingual education promotes the flexible mind. Psychological Research. DOI 10.1007/s00426-014-0575-3

Lindholm-Leary, J. (2000). Biliteracy for a global society: An idea book on dual language. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Marian, V., Shook, A., & Schroeder, S. (2013). Bilingual Two-Way Immersion Programs Benefit Academic Achievement. Bilingual Research Journal: The Journal of the National Association for Bilingual Education, 36:2, 167-186. DOI: 10.1080/15235882.2013.818075

Saiz, Albert, & Zoido, Elena (2005). Listening to what the world says: Bilingualism and earnings in the United States. Review of Economics and Statistics, 8/2005, 523-538.

Thomas, Wayne P., & Collier, Virginia P. (2001). A National Study of School Effectivness for Language Minority Students’ Long-Term Academic Achievement Final Report: Project 1.1. Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence (CREDE). No. R306A60001-96 (July 1, 1996-June 30, 2001)

 

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