While learning a new language can be fun and exciting, bilingual and multilingual experience increases academic performance, enhances work-force success, and even slows down age-related brain decline.
Let’s take a closer look at how learning a new language is beneficial:
1. Multilingual Study Boosts Cognitive and Academic Outcomes
Learning a new language flexes the brain’s muscles while delivering a big pay off: Bilingual and multilingual students tend to do especially well in school. As a whole they outperform their monolingual peers in reading, writing, and math skills -- and generally do better on standardized tests.
Learning a new language boosts concentration, memory, critical thinking, and problem solving skills. Bilinguals and multilinguals also demonstrate better mental flexibility, creativity, and listening ability. They’re more adept multitaskers, too, thanks to the practice of “task-switching” between languages.
Researchers are still working to understand the nuts-and-bolts of the “bilingual advantage”. Here’s what we know so far about how new language learning impacts the brain:
- It enhances one’s understanding of language structures;
- It improves the brain’s command center, paving the way for increased cognitive capacity, including executive functioning skills;
- It enables “linguistic input juggling”, or the ability to automatically tune into relevant sounds, while ignoring irrelevant sounds; and
- It increases both grey matter and white matter- essential building blocks for a healthy, communicative brain.
“Research in the last decade by neurologists, psychologists and linguists, using the latest brain-imaging tools, is revealing a swathe of cognitive benefits for bilinguals,” writes Gaia Vince for BBC Future. “It’s all to do with how our ever-flexible minds learn to multitask.”
2. Multilingualism Supports SEL Well-being
Learning a new language positively influences social-emotional outcomes. Those with bilingual experience show better self-control, make friends more easily, and are more equipped to “internalize negative states like anxiety, aggression, anger, loneliness or low self-esteem.” (de Miguel, 2019. The US Dept of Education, 2019.)
This is especially true for students who are able to practice or learn a language that is tied to a culture in the home. As young bilinguals are taught to recognize the value of a self-identified heritage language, self-identity and self-aspect can also get a positive boost.
Language grants access to culture, which opens doors to increased empathy, a willingness to learn about diverse populations, and lower incidences of racist behaviors. “Children who are exposed early to other languages display more positive attitudes to the cultures associated with those languages,” says Lead with Languages. “The experience of learning a language introduces them to the world in ways they might otherwise have not experienced”.
3. It Promotes 21st-Century Success
Taking on (or brushin up on) a new language comes with some pretty impressive 21st-century benefits, like access to more diverse work opportunities and higher pay. “Globalization makes bilingual individuals more valuable in their future search for work,” explains Veronique de Miguel of Greenville Elementary.
De Miguel continues: “As companies become more international, there is a greater need for employees who are fluent in more than one language.” Schwartz Insurance Group agrees, and offers up the perspective of a hiring organization: “Bilingual employees have a useful skill that can translate into increased revenue for the company. As a result, companies [are likely to] compensate these employees accordingly.”
Indeed, in the U.S., bilinguals earn more money on average than monolinguals. “As for the financial benefits, one estimate puts the value of knowing a second language at up to $128,000 over 40 years,” says BBC Future. And, once they achieve income, bilinguals tend to be more fiscally responsible- so they’re able to hold on to more of the money that they earn.
4. It Offers Long-Term Dividends
The perks of bilingualism can last (and even grow) for a lifetime. People who speak more than one language are better at remembering names, directions, and even items on a shopping list- all things that make “adulting” a little easier.
Dual-language ability also appears to protect our brains from injury and age-related decline. A recent study found that cognitive recovery after brain injury was twice as likely for bilinguals as for monolinguals. Knowing more than one language can ward off dementia and Alzeihmer’s disease, too! Even in those who have already developed the disease, brain studies show that bilingual people’s brains function better and for longer.
Get Started With (or Continue) Learning a New Language
There are many approaches to World Language teaching and learning. But one strategy appears to shine across all grade levels: Interactive storytelling. “Research in neuroscience has demonstrated that stories stimulate many parts of our brain, beyond the portions that focus on language processing alone,” says STORYWORLD.
STORYWORLD provides learners with online interactive books in English, Spanish, and Mandarin with exercises in reading, listening, speaking, and writing. The platform’s approach to language learning is through stories with abundant visual clues embedded in each narrative and throughout follow-up exercises. This creative use of interactive storytelling takes the frustration out of language learning and makes it fun and effective.
With STORYWORLD, students read along while they listen to stories in the target language, and can click on any word they don’t understand to see the translation in their native language - in context - and switch languages at any time for deeper understanding. Meanwhile, the accompanying quizzes and games engage all modalities (reading, listening, speaking and writing) to develop total language proficiency. A 2019 review of STORYWORLD by West ED reported extremely high student engagement across all classrooms. Researchers observed no off-task behaviors, but did “catch” students wanting to reread books in order to learn even more words in the new language.
Stories are great language teachers. They’re fun and entertaining. They introduce new vocabulary, grammar and syntax in context. And they provide plenty of opportunities for connection to words and concepts already stored in our L1 (first language) database.
Whatever strategy is right for you, your students, and even your child - the message is clear: learning a new language is an exciting endeavor with lasting long term benefits.