I’m saddened to see that the U.S. is still so behind when it comes to the quality of public education for our children and the lack of vital 21st-century skills that are actively being taught. Just today, it was reported that the government in England is putting forth a plan to make foreign language learning compulsory for all school children age 7 and above. This progressive move comes in an effort to increase the level of academic preparedness for children once they enter secondary education.
And why, you may wonder, will introducing a second language to kids at such a young age help them be better readers and excel at math and critical thinking? Well, in recent years, thanks to amazing developments in the neurological and social psychology fields, plus advanced neuroimaging technology, scientists have been able to prove — using pictures of our brain, nonetheless! — the huge brain benefits acquired by bilinguals and multilinguals.
As reported in the New York Times article titled Why Bilinguals Are Smarter, “Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.”
Not only do we now know that bilingualism builds a smarter brain, but we also know that the sooner we start, the better. It turns out that the critical window of opportunity to teach children a second (or more) language is from birth to 7. What this means is that at this age the child’s brain is being molded and the neurological pathways created largely based on the amount of sounds they are capturing around them. An easy way to visualize this is that babies are born with all the sounds of the universe in their brain and they will retain, and thus learn, those they hear around them the most; especially those being spoken directly to them as early as they are in utero. This means that if you expose them to several languages through human and immersive interactions, then they will learn them, at the very least in the receptive mode if they don’t get a chance to eventually speak them much. In any case, the benefits are acquired!
Knowing all this research and facts about how a baby’s brain is formed, why, why, why would we deny them the benefits that knowing multiple languages brings to them? Not only is it about the brain, smarts and delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s, it’s also about raising children who are able to communicate with people from many backgrounds and cultures and open the doors to many more opportunities in their future. It’s about raising global and conscious world citizens.
I applaud England for the plan to join the likes of Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand, where children learn a second language in elementary school. Starting at age 7 is still a great time to start as many of the benefits are still there, and it’s easier for children to both learn and accept the instruction in an immersive and fun way.
Last month, my SpanglishBaby partner Roxana and I took our movement of bilingual education and foreign language learning in early elementary (And even preschool! One can dream..) all the way to the White House and posed the question to Alejandra Ceja, the chief of staff at the Office of the Undersecretary of the Department of Education. Her response left us saddened, yet reenergized, because there’s still not much understanding as to the urgency to develop radical changes in the current curriculum and education focus in order to decrease the alarming education gap, especially the one affecting Latinos.
We will definitely continue to raise awareness about raising bilingual and multilingual kids and the best way to do it is one parent at a time. All we ask is that you read the research, be informed and ask your local schools to introduce languages at an early age. It will benefit all.
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Check out the forthcoming book I co-authored, Bilingual is Better: Two Latina Moms on How the Bilingual Parenting Revolution is Changing the Face of America.
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