English as a First Language (But What About the Second?)

Imagine a world where everyone knows more than one language. Then consider that in a way, this is already happening. Almost every other country in the world teaches its students two languages: English and the native language of that country. Children grow up exposed to two languages or more with a native fluency in all. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for most American children who are born and raised in the United States. In fact, according to Scientific American, only 9% of US adults speak a language other than English fluently.

Studies have found that students across the globe have been successful in acquiring a native-like fluency in all the languages they know because of their early exposure to them. Just as you are now reading this with little difficulty because of your long background in the English language, students in other countries exhibit an ease in their speech and reading skills in other languages because of their long exposure to them. Indeed, learning more than one language poses several benefits for the students.

According to the Kumon Learning Center, children who are learning another language are more creative, better at problem-solving, and score higher on standardized tests. In a study published in the New Yorker, bilingual children were found to have more grey matter in their brains, so their ability to process information is heightened along with their memory, speech, and sensory perception. Language Stars, a language learning program built for children, notes that learning languages comes easier to younger learners because they “benefit from flexible ear and speech muscles that can still hear the critical differences between the sounds of a second language, as well as reproduce them with native-like quality.”

Introducing a new language to a child at an early age has been proven to increase their cognitive abilities in test-taking and problem-solving, and it also provides them with other benefits that will help them in the future. For example, though English is the lingua franca of this age, languages in business may shift to Spanish, Chinese-Mandarin, and Portuguese in the near future and equipping a child with those languages may contribute to his or her success. In addition, a child with a good command of more than one language can express himself better because he has access to another set of words that may describe his emotions in a more complete way. Bilingualism also opens a door to children that exposes them to the cultures of the world and shows them how large and diverse the world is.

In a published interview conducted by Duke University, professors agreed that though online language-learning systems offer interactive learning and may be proficient in teaching the basics, learning a new language in a classroom is still superior as the teacher can engage the students in dialogue and explain the language in different ways to help the children understand. Some might say the money and time it will take to introduce foreign language classes to elementary school students surpasses the benefits the program will offer, but there are cheaper ways to include those subjects in an elementary curriculum. For example, shortening every class by five minutes so a foreign language class may fit in the schedule would allow students to begin the language-learning process while taking a minimal amount of time from the other subjects. The jobs that would be created by needing foreign language teachers for earlier ages would contribute to the betterment of the economy and would lower the unemployment rate.

As a student who has been exposed to more than one language growing up, I can say that my educational experience has been easier and more enjoyable because of my comfort with language. I find that not only has my multilingualism been helpful academically, but it has also helped me keep in touch with my own culture and explore that of others.

Beginning the language-learning process early so that elementary students get a start in speaking other languages poses several benefits that could positively affect the prospects of the future leaders of the world.