The academic benefits of dual language education are far-reaching.
Research shows that the early acquisition of a second language impacts intellectual growth in a wide variety of ways:
- Cognitive skills are strengthened.
- Student’s ability to adapt to different types of learning is strengthened.
- Creativity and problem-solving skills are enhanced.
- Overall academic performance in general is improved.
- Higher scores on standardized tests are frequently seen in students enrolled in dual language programs.
In the STARlight, Issue 3
Laura-Ann Petitto, Ph.D.
Focus of Research
Six distinct lines of inquiry were undertaken over several years, each consisting of several sub-studies. One method used to examine the optimal age for bilingual language exposure was to study young bilinguals who were exposed to their “other” language for the first time beginning from ages (i) birth, (ii) three, (iii) five, and (iv) seven; these ages correspond to key periods of brain development and provide a first-time window into the biological factors that contribute to successful bilingual acquisition. Also studied was the age of first bilingual exposure and its enduring impact on adult bilingual language processing. Additionally, this issue was looked at by examining children acquiring two languages across a variety of social contexts (home, community, and classroom only). Hearing babies acquiring two spoken languages were compared with signing-speaking babies who can potentially produce their two languages simultaneously. Also studied was whether they take this option, and under what conditions, as a window into the knowledge that underlies all childhood bilingualism. Finally, multiple research methodologies were utilized (spanning from behavioral measurement to brain imaging). This threefold approach (using an interdisciplinary perspective, multiple populations, and multiple methods) provides the most powerful lens to lay bare the answers to any research program.
Summary of Bilingual Findings (all studies)
Overall, this research endeavor has been spectacularly successful and has yielded many important findings that bear directly on the nation’s educational priorities and policy towards bilingual children. As hypothesized, the age of bilingual exposure has a significant impact on bilingual language development. Moreover, early age of bilingual exposure has a positive impact on multiple aspects of a child’s development: linguistic, cognitive, and reading. Children who experience early and extensive exposure to both of their languages quickly grasp the fundamentals of both of their languages and in a manner similar to that of monolingual language learners. As adults, these bilingual individuals, in addition to their good behavioral performance on language tasks, also show brains that process their two languages in a similar manner. The field raised concerns that early bilinguals may be linguistically, cognitively, and academically disadvantaged. Our findings suggest that early bilingualism offers no disadvantages; on the contrary, young bilinguals may be afforded a linguistic and a cognitive advantage. Early dual-language exposure is also key to skilled reading acquisition. Moreover, learning to read in two languages may afford an advantage in key phonemic-awareness skills vital to reading success.
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