Bilingual myth busters: ‘If English is the language used in school, is it necessary for my child to learn Chinese at home?’

Bilingual children benefit from cognitive, linguistic and social advantages that help them to succeed in school. The daily experience of thinking and speaking in two languages promotes positive benefits. (Image courtesy of Flickr users Todd & Anne Hoffman.)

By Shirley Huang

 

The benefits of bilingualism can help children succeed in school. When children learn more than one language, they develop important skills that are necessary for school. In the classroom, students must have good attention and focus, knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, and social communication skills. Bilingual children benefit from cognitive, linguistic and social advantages that help them to succeed in school.

The daily experience of thinking and speaking in two languages promotes positive cognitive benefits. Bilinguals have greater attentional control and focus. They must attend to the social environment and select the appropriate language while inhibiting competing words. Additionally, bilinguals have strong memory recall. On a regular basis, bilinguals are holding on to information from two languages. These cognitive benefits that result from frequently managing two languages can positively impact the child’s performance in school.

Knowledge and fluency in one language can help support the learning of a second language. Bilingual children learn multiple meanings and uses of a word — both within and across languages. For example, in Cantonese the word “qun” means both “skirt and “dress,” but in English ‘skirt’ and ‘dress’ each have their own meaning. This kind of language flexibility is useful for understanding figurative language in books. Additionally, children who learn more than one language are also learning the grammar rules of both languages. There is research that shows that bilinguals produce more complex sentence structures in either language compared to monolinguals. Exposing the child to more than one language can result in strong development of linguistic skills that are necessary for academic success.

            Successful performance in school also includes having positive peer relationships. When bilingual children learn more than one language, they also learn social behaviors and communication skills that are unique to each culture. In doing so, children develop greater awareness of what their communication partner is saying. Moreover, bilinguals are more likely to adapt their social behaviors and change their perspectives to understand their communication partner. These social communication skills are important for children to maintain friendships.

Even though English is the only language used in school, there are many benefits to learning another language that can help children succeed in school. Early exposure to more than one language ensures optimal cognitive, linguistic and social development. Therefore, it is important that teachers, parents and clinicians encourage bilingualism to maximize children’s academic success.

 

About the author

Shirley Huang is a bilingual speech-language pathologist who speaks Cantonese and English.

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