Bilingualism Can Help Close Learning Gaps for Immigrant Students

While exposing children to more than one language is all the rage among affluent parents, lower-income immigrant kids may benefit most of all.

Children play with iPads and the apptivity app at Westfield shopping Centre on August 21, 2012 in London, England. The new app from toy maker Mattel allows children use Hot Wheels, Batman, WWE and other toys to interact with an Apple iPad.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
April 30, 2014, 12:27 p.m.

The gos­pel of the day is that rais­ing chil­dren to speak and un­der­stand more than one lan­guage is good for their cog­nit­ive de­vel­op­ment. A num­ber of stud­ies re­leased in the past few years have in­dic­ated that mul­ti­lin­gual speak­ers may even have more fo­cused brains and high­er pro­cessing abil­it­ies. Not sur­pris­ingly, this re­search — and the me­dia at­ten­tion that has ac­com­pan­ied it — has led to re­newed ef­forts among more-af­flu­ent par­ents to se­cure spots for their chil­dren in lan­guage im­mer­sion schools and em­ploy mul­ti­lin­gual nan­nies who can ex­pose their wee ones to an­oth­er lan­guage from the earli­est ages. 

A skep­tic might ask, however, if it’s pos­sible that the cog­nit­ive be­ne­fits such bi­lin­gual chil­dren re­ceive are more a res­ult of their priv­ileged so­cioeco­nom­ic status — and the re­sources they have ac­cess to — rather than simply an abil­ity to con­verse in Span­ish or Man­dar­in. 

The en­cour­aging an­swer is: not really. 

Stud­ies show that the brain does in­deed gain cog­nit­ive be­ne­fits from be­ing bi­lin­gual, re­gard­less of one’s so­cioeco­nom­ic status. And that has po­ten­tially sig­ni­fic­ant im­plic­a­tions in the United States, where nat­ive bi­lin­guals tend to be poorer than the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion.

It helps to un­der­stand what, ex­actly, you gain from speak­ing more than one lan­guage. The be­ne­fit is quite spe­cif­ic to a very im­port­ant as­pect of our brain’s func­tion­ing, says El­len Bia­lys­tok, a cog­nit­ive neur­os­cient­ist at York Uni­versity in Toronto who has been ex­amin­ing bi­lin­gual­ism’s ef­fects on the mind for dec­ades.

Be­ing bi­lin­gual im­proves the ex­ec­ut­ive func­tion­ing pro­cesses that man­age things such as at­ten­tion, work­ing memory, plan­ning, and prob­lem-solv­ing. The bi­lin­gual mind ex­per­i­ences a workout from con­stantly sup­press­ing one lan­guage while ac­tiv­at­ing an­oth­er, which builds up the brain’s cog­nit­ive pro­cesses.

“This is the most im­port­ant cog­nit­ive sys­tem we have,” Bia­lys­tok says. “There are stud­ies show­ing that ex­ec­ut­ive func­tion in child­hood pre­dicts aca­dem­ic out­comes in a nar­row sense, and broad­er suc­cess out­comes in life.”

But when Bia­lys­tok star­ted do­ing re­search on the bi­lin­gual ef­fect, there was a con­cern that so­cioeco­nom­ic factors were in­ter­fer­ing with the res­ults. Now there are a num­ber of stud­ies that, when taken to­geth­er, she says “rule out that our ef­fects are lim­ited to a cer­tain so­cioeco­nom­ic status, or even worse, con­foun­ded by so­cioeco­nom­ic status and not re­flect­ing the ef­fects of bi­lin­gual­ism.”

One study Bia­lys­tok was in­volved with looked at a group of low-in­come chil­dren from a spe­cif­ic re­gion of Por­tugal. On a lit­any of tests, meas­ur­ing things like in­tel­li­gence and visu­al memory, the kids who stayed in Por­tugal and those who had im­mig­rated to Lux­em­bourg and learned to speak Lux­em­bour­gish per­formed the same. But on the meas­ures that test the brain’s con­trol func­tion, re­search­ers found that the kids in Lux­em­bourg “sig­ni­fic­antly out­per­formed those who stayed be­hind,” Bia­lys­tok says. 

Over­all, kids from poorer so­cioeco­nom­ic back­grounds tend to per­form worse than wealth­i­er kids on ex­ec­ut­ive func­tion­ing meas­ures. Bi­lin­gual­ism, it ap­pears, can help com­pensate for that gap.

A sep­ar­ate 2008 study from Uni­versity of Wash­ing­ton re­search­ers com­pared Span­ish-Eng­lish nat­ive bi­lin­gual kinder­garten­ers (who ten­ded to come from more dis­ad­vant­aged back­grounds) to Eng­lish speak­ers en­rolled in second-lan­guage im­mer­sion and Eng­lish-only speak­ers. The nat­ive bi­lin­guals out­per­formed the oth­er groups on ex­ec­ut­ive func­tion tests. But that was only after con­trolling for factors like so­cioeco­nom­ic status; be­fore do­ing that, their scores were the same. Giv­en the im­pact of so­cioeco­nom­ic and oth­er factors on cog­nit­ive de­vel­op­ment, those kids should have done worse than their more-ad­vant­aged peers. Es­sen­tially, dis­ad­vant­aged bi­lin­guals may be “do­ing more with less,” the re­search­ers noted.

That study was par­tic­u­larly not­able be­cause after Eng­lish, Span­ish is by far the most com­mon spoken lan­guage in the U.S. About 60 mil­lion people, or one in five, speak a lan­guage oth­er than Eng­lish at home, ac­cord­ing to 2011 Census data. And 21 per­cent of them live be­low the poverty line, com­pared to just 14 per­cent of the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion.

Myths still per­sist around bi­lin­gual­ism. For a long time, edu­ca­tion­al ex­perts con­cluded that it took bi­lin­gual kids much longer to de­vel­op lan­guage skills, says Sarah Rose­berry Lytle, the dir­ect­or of trans­la­tion at the Uni­versity of Wash­ing­ton’s In­sti­tute for Learn­ing and Brain Sci­ences. It turns out that’s not the case; it just looked that way when those kids were as­sessed in only one lan­guage.

Sup­port for bi­lin­gual or mul­ti­lin­gual edu­ca­tion con­tin­ues to grow, even where it was once viewed with sus­pi­cion. Cali­for­nia, for in­stance, is now home to an ex­plo­sion of dual-lan­guage im­mer­sion pro­grams, where 5-year-olds learn in Itali­an and Ja­pan­ese. But as re­cently as 1998, Cali­for­nia voters banned bi­lin­gual-edu­ca­tion pro­grams, man­dat­ing that stu­dents whose first lan­guage was not Eng­lish be taught “over­whelm­ingly in Eng­lish.” Since then, the gap in test scores between those stu­dents and nat­ive Eng­lish speak­ers has widened. 

En­cour­aging bi­lin­gual­ism could help to­ward clos­ing that gap. While “there is no be­ne­fit of bi­lin­gual­ism with gen­er­al IQ and things like that,” says Lytle, “if you think about the struc­ture of a classroom day, kids are of­ten asked to switch tasks pretty quickly without re­ten­tion time. The idea is that bi­lin­gual kids are go­ing to be bet­ter at task-switch­ing.”

But be­ing bi­lin­gual doesn’t ex­ist in a va­cu­um for many chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly those who come from poorer so­cioeco­nom­ic situ­ations. And hav­ing to deal with so­ci­et­al factors that dis­cour­age or don’t value bi­lin­gual­ism can harm them, says Afra Her­si, a lit­er­acy edu­ca­tion pro­fess­or at Loy­ola Uni­versity Mary­land who has re­searched bi­lin­gual teen­agers and their school ex­per­i­ences. “Bi­lin­gual­ism as a dis­tinct ad­vant­age is not val­ued as much in the United States if you are a child from a low so­cioeco­nom­ic cir­cum­stance,” she says.

There are com­plic­at­ing factors with­in im­mig­rant com­munit­ies, as well. Im­mig­rant kids tend to pick up Eng­lish quick­er than their par­ents, “which puts strains on the fam­ily co­he­sion,” says Her­si. “It puts par­ents and chil­dren at odds with each oth­er.”

Over­all, though, there is a be­ne­fit to be­ing bi­lin­gual from which every­one, re­gard­less of so­cioeco­nom­ic status, stands to gain — par­tic­u­larly if speak­ing two lan­guages is seen as a good thing. The bi­lin­gual be­ne­fit doesn’t guar­an­tee great­er aca­dem­ic achieve­ment, ad­mis­sion to col­lege, or a high-pay­ing job — but it cer­tainly sets the found­a­tion for great­er suc­cesses in life.

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