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You Had Me at Hola: Benefits of Foreign Language Instruction in Early Education

Mrs. Katrib: Okay class, who can tell me how we say “hello” in Spanish?

Marina: I know how to say “hello” in Chinese!

Lydia: Me too! I speak Chinese too!

Anna: I know how to say “hello” in Romanian!

Sarah: Well I speak Arabic!

Jotham: I know a little Ethiopian!

A secret code,” they might call it, intrigued by the utterance of foreign sounds. Your children may perform for you the songs learned in class over and over and over again, along with commands and greetings. This is what acquiring a second language looks like!

Second language acquisition might not strike parents as needed for children at such a young age. Many fear that it may interfere with their early perception of their native language. Other than the obvious—future career advancement and more fulfilling travel experiences—acquiring a second language not only improves learning their first language, but also has proven to be effective in helping children develop cognitive flexibility and enhance their mental and social skills.

Prior to understanding the effects of second language acquisition, we need to first be familiar with this particular scientific discipline and process. Stephen Krashen, the award-winning linguist in the field of language acquisition, describes the process of second language learning in five stages. The first stage is preproduction, which entails basic vocabulary and word pronunciation and repetition through total physical response: modeling and repeating the act. Next is the early production stage—vocabulary expansion, forming words and short phrases. After this is speech emergence—comprehending simple commands and questions as they begin reading and writing in the second language. The next stage is intermediate fluency, where the student can think in the target language and become proficient enough to speak it. The final stage is advanced fluency, where the child has (potentially) reached the native level of speaking and understanding the language.

This process is natural as it requires repetition of phrases and words, and comprehensive input to understand the material without being too worried or overwhelmed with excessive linguistic information. Lessons must be meaningful and serve a purpose that is clear for the learners in order for them to engage with the material. The activities are based on the students’ experience with the outside world while developing the four language skills–listening, writing, speaking, and reading.

So what effect does acquiring a second language have on children at such a young age? Many studies have shown no deficiency whatsoever in their native language learning. In fact, what was found was an enhanced apprehension and fluency of their native language as well. The correlation is evident in the development of children’s reading abilities, math skills, and even test scores, as they transfer skills and knowledge from one language to another.

Reading is critical to language acquisition and all of education. And reading in a second language further tests and develops reading comprehension skills in both native and foreign texts. These students read more frequently and proficiently—with greater speed and understanding. Additionally, exploring texts in a new world of language expands the students’ interest and spikes their curiosity in reading.

Acquiring a second language improves speaking and writing as well. It develops verbal expression, fluency, and precision, and different writing styles, including familiarization with transition words and orthographic and punctuation rules. As a result, grammar and sentence structure improve in both languages; word roots and vocabulary transfer and translate as well, enriching the writing experience as a whole in both languages!

Simply put, children become more aware of linguistic similarities and differences between learned languages, which helps them decode any language, improving brain flexibility and problem solving skills. These cognitive skills in children improve critical thinking, creativity, and multitasking.

Improvements can even be seen in mathematics, which many describe to be a language of its own. Acquiring a second language has proven effective in recognizing and understanding math problems, just as if the student encountered a seemingly foreign problem in a new language. The constant switching between decoding different languages and linguistic patterns trains the brain to transfer information and skills learned in one language or discipline to other languages or disciplines.

The German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe believed that “he who knows no foreign language knows nothing of his own.” Children should be given the opportunities of exposure to as many foreign languages as possible in order to improve understanding of the structure and rules of their own native language, advance in both reading and mathematics, and mature while sharpening general cognition.

Aydin, S. (2011). Does Recreational Reading in Native Language Influence Foreign Language Learning Process? Qualitative Report, 16(6), 1554-1573. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.fiu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.fiu.edu/docview/968110476?accountid=10901

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