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Benefits of Being Bilingual
Second Language Learning: Everyone Can Benefit
The 1990s have been a decade of renewed interest in language learning. As always, political and economic concerns play a major role in the nation’s perception of the value of learning a second language (Met and Galloway, 1992). In addition, there is now a growing appreciation of the role that multilingual individuals can play in an increasingly diverse society, and there is also a greater understanding of the academic and cognitive benefits that may accrue from learning other languages. During the past five years in particular, researchers, policymakers, educators, employers, parents, and the media have reexamined the advantages of foreign language learning.
In 1989, a presidential resolution declaring the 1990s the “decade of the brain” was announced. An increased level of research on brain development has been under way throughout the 1990s. Some of this research has analyzed the effect of language acquisition on the brain. The results of these studies have generated media interest in how early learning experiences— including first and second language acquisition—promote cognitive development. Newsweek magazine, for example, devoted a special edition to the critical first three years of a child’s life and indicated that there is a window of opportunity for second language learning that begins when a child is one year of age (Lach, 1997). A recent article in Time magazine suggested that foreign languages should be taught to children as early as possible (Nash, 1997). And the television newsmagazine Dateline NBC aired a segment on first and second language acquisition in November 1997.
This article summarizes findings from numerous sources on the benefits of studying second languages and offers suggestions to parents and educators for encouraging language learning at home and at school. (A detailed list of ways to foster a language-proficient society appears in “Putting It All Together: Fostering a Language- Proficient Society” on page 70 of the ERIC Review, from which this article is reprinted.)
Benefits of Second Language Learning
Some studies have found that students who learn foreign languages score statistically higher on standardized college entrance exams than those who do not. For example, the College Entrance Examination Board reported that students who had averaged four or more years of foreign language study scored higher on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) than those who had studied four or more years of any other subject (College Entrance Examination Board, 1992; Cooper, 1987). These findings, which were consistent with College Board profiles for previous years (College Entrance Examination Board, 1982; Solomon, 1984) and with the work of Eddy (1981), suggest that studying a second language for a number of years may contribute to higher SAT scores. (1)
Although second language classes
are not always readily available, many r esources exist to help parents and
Throughout the school years, parents can show their children that the ability to speak a second language is valued by encouraging an interest in other languages and cultures. Parents can show their respect for other cultures and ways of speaking by inviting people who speak other languages into their homes and by attending cultural events featuring music, dance, or food from other countries. They can also provide their children with books, videos, and similar materials in other languages, and they can send their children to foreign language camps.
To supplement language classes, parents of older children might also wish to explore the possibility of enrolling them in international exchange programs.< Students normally live abroad with a host family, which provides them with a safe and sheltered environment where they can practice their language skills. These experiences offer valuable opportunities to complement second language study with firsthand exploration of a different culture.
Research has shown that second language study offers many benefits to students in terms of improved communicative ability, cognitive development, cultural awareness, and job opportunities. Society as a whole also profits economically, politically, and socially when its citizens can communicate< with and appreciate people from other countries and cultures. Parents and educators would be wise to take advantage of the many available opportunities and resources for second language learning for the benefit of children coming of age in the 21st century.
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(1) Although the College Board studies
show a correlation between studying a
foreign language and achieving higher
scores on the SAT, it is difficult to prove
causality. It may be that the SAT scores of
students who take several years of a foreign
language are also influenced by other
variables, such as their socioeconomic
class, the educational level of their parents,
or the resources available in their secondary
Reprinted from Marcos, K. M. (1998, Fall). Second language learning: Everyone can benefit. The ERIC Review, 6(1), 2-5.
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