It can be difficult to raise a bilingual child, but the benefits of learning a second language at an early age make it worth it
9 March 2021| Last updated on 16 March 2021
We take a look at the importance of learning languages at an early age...
It takes at least 15 years of academic education to communicate in your native language: writing, listening, and speaking. Time is the greatest benefit of learning a second language at an early age.
Children start small and work their way up to higher levels of thought and communication. They have an advantage over adults while they learn new languages.
SISD offers three bilingual programmes: French, German and Arabic, all taught alongside English. The programmes are available for students ages 3 to 18, with Arabic available up to age 6.
Languages must be taught early
Language and literacy development begins before children are even born. In infancy, children experiment with language through sounds and eventually, words. Oral language is a key milestone for early literacy development before children learn to read.
It’s much easier to learn a second language at an early age than it is when you’re older.
A child under the age of 5 uses the same part of the brain to acquire a second language as the part that learns their native language. They also have more time to learn, less content to learn, and fewer inhibitions. They don’t have a fear of making mistakes, which may be common for older language learners.
Children go through two distinct phases of proficiency in languages other than their mother tongue: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) which takes 6 months to 2 years to develop, and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) which takes 4 to 7 years to develop in a full immersion programme.
Over the course of 4 to 7 years, children will go through five phases, from a silent period to early production, speech immersion, and intermediate to advanced fluency.
Part of the development of SISD’s bilingual programmes included in-depth research on bilingualism and translanguaging. They created universal language key indicators and researched how to translate that into the classroom, with programmes highlighting the strengths children have in their home languages and use their skills to increase their proficiency, including a new language they learn at school.
SISD prepare their Early Year (EY) students for growth into a diverse, multicultural, and multilingual environment. For more information on the execution of bilingual instruction and what you and your child can expect from SISD's EY programmes, read the interview with Early Years PYP Coordinator, Ms. Christiana Gonzalez.
Multiple languages aids cognitive development
Learning a second language was once thought to interfere with a child’s intellectual and cognitive development, but bilingualism is now associated with benefits: listening skills, concentration, working memory, greater attention spans, and problem solving.
Bilingual children excel at mental flexibility and executive control skills such as self-discipline, perseverance, goal achievement, and motivation to complete complex school assignments. They exhibit more creativity and are better at multitasking and conflict resolution.
While simultaneous bilinguals have cognitive benefits longer, sequential or successive bilinguals (people who learn new languages one at a time) benefit too, transcending socioeconomic status and other cultural factors.
Speaking more than one language even helps us when we’re older: the changes bilingualism makes in our brain helps to fight against mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease because of the mental workout speakers experience as they filter through information in two languages.
Academic and social advantages
The cognitive skills of bilingual children can lead to academic and behavioral success, and a stronger learning environment in the classroom.
Children learning multiple languages at an early age develop metalinguistic skills faster than other children. They develop phonological awareness skills, which are required for reading. Being exposed to more words in multiple languages, they are more likely to learn the equivalent of any word they pick up in another language. Their increased vocabulary makes learning alphabets and spelling come more naturally.
Bilingual students have improved reading, writing, and math skills, and typically score higher on standardised tests. The longer students spend learning a second language, the more test scores also improve.
It’s possible for a student to be bilingual, but not biliterate. Bilingual students can develop stronger literacy skills if they learn to read in the languages they can speak. The more they can gain phonological awareness, vocabulary memorisation, and other metalinguistic skills in both languages, the faster they’ll learn to read, but proper instruction from bilingual teachers is crucial.
Later in life, bilingual children can spend their post-secondary education or time specialising in a field of their interest. They can find employment translating or interpreting in fields related to their expertise. Employers pay multilingual individuals significantly more in legal, medical, technical, or scientific fields.