Does Bilingualism Make You Smarter?
By Domenico Maceri
Dequwan Well, a first-grader in a dual-language school in San Bernardino, Calif., said that he "can have more friends" because he can speak two languages. Dequwan is even smarter than he realizes. Researchers have discovered that being bilingual may make children "smarter" than monolingual ones.Laura-Ann Petitto, a researcher at Dartmouth College, stated that "bilingual children can perform certain cognitive tasks more accurately than monolinguals." Petitto and several colleagues compared a group of monolingual children who spoke only French or English to a group of children who were learning one spoken language with one signed language. The children in the two groups were matched in terms of age (four to six) but in memory development as well.The researchers determined that bilingual children far outperformed the monolingual group in determining whether rapidly-changing computer-generated red and blue squares appear on the center, right, or left side of the screen.Traditionally, the idea was that bilingual children's language development was slower because of having to deal with the confusion of two languages. Petitto says that the heightened cognitive skills of bilingual children have to do with the increased computational demands of having to process two different languages.The advantages of bilingualism affect the entire education of students. Students educated in more than one language develop a mental agility that monolinguals lack. One of these advantages has to do with something researchers call a "plasticity" of the brain. Bilingual children recognize that just as there are two ways to say something, there are also two ways to learn and solve problems. This mental agility is evident in learning foreign languages. Just as it's easier for someone who knows how to play a musical instrument to learn a second and a third one, thus it is also easier for someone who knows a second language to learn a third, or even a fourth one.The Dartmouth study confirms past research done at George Mason University in Virginia. Researchers in a 14-year study found that kids educated in dual-language schools outperformed monolingual children on standardized tests. Students in dual-language schools did better than those in traditional bilingual education and those educated only in English.Since bilingualism is a definite plus, one would think that it would be pushed in our schools as the way to educate our kids and prepare them for the challenges of a world which is increasingly getting smaller.To a certain extent, this is indeed happening. There are now 271 dual language schools nationwide, more than double the number of 1995. Although the most typical combination is English-Spanish, others involving Asian and European languages are also available.These dual-language programs are very popular and waiting lists are very common in school districts that make them available. Typically, they exist in communities which have sizeable immigrant populations or in university towns where multilingual education is highly prized.The federal government provides funds to implement dual-language programs. San Bernardino schools received $1,375,000 over five years to implement their dual-language program. Yet, naysayers exist. Ron Unz, a California software entrepreneur who spearheaded anti-bilingual education initiatives in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, stated that dual-language schools sound like "bilingual education" with a "different name."He believes that dual-language programs are a backdoor to the bilingual education programs he virtually did away with. Unz tried to eliminate bilingual education in Colorado but he failed because many parents were concerned that the initiative would also do away with dual-language programs and deprive their kids of the opportunity to become bilingual.Colorado's parents were wise. If your school district does not offer a dual-language program, contact your school board and request it. It will be a great investment for your kids but for the rest of the country a well.
|Laura-Ann Petitto, Professor in Dartmouth's Dept. of Psychological and Brain Sciences|
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Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers including Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Japan Times, and The Seoul Times. Some of his stories won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.