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Bilingualism is Instrumental to Workforce Success

Author: Helios Education Foundation

Over the past eight years, Helios Education Foundation has made numerous investments in the area of early learning in both Florida and Arizona. These investments have focused on teacher quality, high quality professional development, and the coordination and alignment of curriculum and instructional strategies from pre-kindergarten to third grade.

While these strategic investments have spurred change, an educational opportunity gap among children entering kindergarten continues to exist. Exploration of this gap has identified a significant percentage of children aged birth to five who come from homes where English is often the second language.

As the demographic profile of our country and, by extension, our classrooms change, we too must change to meet the growing educational needs of this nation’s future workforce. No longer will our children be competitive in the 21st century economy without skillsets that translate worldwide. One such skill – the ability to speak multiple languages - is an advantage that many countries recognize as an essential element to a well-rounded education.

“Research indicates that people who are bilingual show a higher level of executive function,” explained Dr. Dina Castro with the University of North Texas. “Bilingualism influences all aspects of a child’s development and heightens their ability to follow instruction, understand direction and take turns,” concluded Dr. Castro. 

Bilinguals have shown an enhanced ability to control their attention in nonverbal tasks such as mathematical problem solving and use of vocabulary with meaning (Barac & Bialystok, 2013). People who are fluent in two or more languages also show advanced abilities to problem solve – this is especially true for executive functions like planning, rule acquisition, abstract thinking and cognitive flexibility – all critical skills needed to be successful in both academics and life.

Bilingualism is a gateway to success beyond the domestic classroom, encourages an expansion of individual perspective and deepens personal understanding of elements that reverberate worldwide. According to the Eurostat, over 93% of European Union students enrolled in secondary education take English as a second language, with some students electing to study a third language. While students in the United States are encouraged to study a second language during their high school years, limited opportunities for immersion inhibits fluency, making these students barely bilingual and woefully short of bi-literate. 

“Human beings are born with the ability to learn more than one language. When you do not use this capability by a certain point in your life, you lose it,” said Dr. Dina Castro. “It is possible, of course, to acquire another language later in life but it will be more challenging”.  

Dual language immersion, research asserts, is most effective during the early stages of a child’s cognitive development. A child’s brain is processing all new information and is busy selecting and fortifying its neural networks that make learning languages between the years of birth-five fertile ground. At this early stage, children are unencumbered to learn the principles of linguistics - the formation of sounds and patterns of speech that serve as a foundation to all languages.

While acquisition of a second or third language can successfully take place at a later stage, full absorption into a multilingual mindset is most readily adopted and, thus most successful, in the early stage of neurological development.

“Children should have the opportunity to learn languages when their brain is attuned to this type of acquisition rather than reengage children after the optical age when the task becomes much more onerous,” said Dr. Karen Ortiz, Vice President and Program Director, Early Grade Success with Helios Education Foundation.

Dual language immersion at the appropriate developmental stage - when the brain is prime for this acquisition - is key to ensuring students supersede the goal of being bilingual and actually become bi-literate. Another advantage experienced by bilinguals is the ability to express themselves in a meta-linguistic way.

“Bilinguals experience a level of linguistic understanding that goes beyond simply speaking a language to talking about the structure of the language. It’s a much deeper understanding.” stated Dr. Castro.

Recognizing our students will likely engage future employers and peers from a myriad of countries and cultures, it is imperative that we educate them with skillsets that take full advantage of the growing diversity within our country, and that of the world. Let us celebrate multiculturalism, encourage multilingualism and prepare out students for the challenges of our diverse world.

Category: Early Childhood Education, Education Issues

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