The Benefits of Bilingual Education

Alena Maksimovna Maks
March 12, 2016
Sherman Oaks, California

Dear parents, teachers and administration of our wonderful Na Tarzanke Saturday School!

I want to appeal to those of you who are still tormented by doubts about the benefits and even the need for bilingual and even multilingual education. I hope this message, if you do not dissuade the opponents of early bilingualism, then at least sow healthy interest and encourage you to further study this issue. Being the mother of a child who is fluent in three languages ​​and eagerly starting to study the fourth, as well as being a professional linguist, I hope by my example to encourage other parents to give their children a chance to experience the benefits of bilingualism.

To gain your trust and clarify my modest expertise in this matter, I’ll tell you a little about myself. In addition to Russian, I speak three more languages, and my parents, as linguists, began to teach me English at the age of 2 years. And although I grew up behind the Iron Curtain, I spoke fluently in English from early childhood.

During my linguistic career, I was happy to deal with the issues of psycholinguistics, which allowed me to understand the mechanism of polyglotism. Imagine that each language you speak creates a separate room in your brain. How many languages ​​- so many rooms. Doors between rooms can be opened, languages ​​can interpenetrate and seep back and forth, just as in a house sounds and smells penetrate from one room to another. At the same time, the rooms are still isolated from each other, they can not mix. Likewise, languages ​​never completely mix, because there are walls between them. Learning one will never hurt another. Only help. Information useful in learning a new language may leak through the door. That’s all, very simple. The more rooms, the larger your home. The bigger and more beautiful your brain. He is more developed and capable of more.

I used this theory to raise my child. My 10-year-old son has been visiting Tarzanka for 8 years. And for 9 years now he has been studying at the French Lyceum in a system of complete language immersion. Russian and English were the first languages ​​that he had heard at home from birth. Dad spoke to him in English, I – in Russian. The son understood everything, but was in no hurry to speak. And yet, in 2 years, we sent him to the French Lyceum. We brought down three languages ​​on him, knowing from experience and science that he would manage, that the children’s brain is the strongest, most complicated mechanism that develops as much as we allow it.

And yet, the baby spoke the first sentences in English. We showed him Russian and French cartoons, read him in all three languages, he played at school mainly with French children, and yet English made his way to him from all sides. The information layer always takes its toll! You can’t hide from him. You should never be afraid that your child will not learn the language of the country of residence. And now my son is already mumbling on a ridiculous mixture of French-English words, but still doesn’t speak a word in Russian. But we did not despair. Thanks to the existence of “On Tarzanka”, as well as 4 months in Moscow with his grandmother, he spoke fluently, beautifully and correctly.

He is now 10 and a half years old. He studies well, loves to read, plays various sports, plays the piano. He does not distinguish between the three languages, he is comfortable in all three. He selects books to read and films to watch based not on the language, but on his interest in the topic. And the rest, he is an ordinary boy from an intelligent family, not smarter, not more capable than others. He differs from many in that we gave him an invaluable gift – we gave him all those countries in which these three languages ​​are spoken. But now this is not enough for him – he wants the whole world. And now he himself seeks to add to these languages ​​the knowledge of others.

I hope that I have captured your attention enough to bring down a few general terms related to our topic and bring a scientific and social basis for them.

What is bilingualism or bilingualism?

Bilingualism (bilingualism,> Lat. Bi- ‘two’ + lingua ‘language’.) – is the possession of two languages ​​and the ability to use them to successfully communicate and equally use them in the necessary conditions of communication.

This definition causes only a positive connotation, right? Such thoughts as “advantages over other people”, “expanding the possibilities of a bilingual person compared to a monolingual” come to mind. Let’s go further.

People who speak two languages ​​are called bilinguals , three are multilinguals , and more than three are polyglots. Since language is a function of social groups, to be a bilingual means to belong to two different social groups at the same time.

Great! This definition shows how knowledge of two languages ​​expands the world and the possibilities of bilingual and multilingual people. After all, the days have passed when successful integration into a new society meant an unequivocal rejection of one’s essence, one’s roots and one’s own language. We live in a cosmopolitan time, and you and I have a unique chance to grow true “citizens of the world”.

Some of you, however, may object that all this is good only for adults, that too early immersion of children in the second and third languages ​​can lead to a slowdown in speech development, to lag behind peers. In many ways, this opinion is artificially instilled and supported by teachers of pre-school and primary stages of American schools. There are explanations for this.

First, ask yourself a number of questions: Would these teachers allow such statements and teachings to parents if it was a Spanish-speaking family? Would they propose that you restrict home communication with your child in, say, Chinese in order to increase his academic level in English? Or would you advise you to choose between English and Tagalog (Tagalog is one of the main languages ​​of the Republic of the Philippines), what will be your first baby? No and no again. The compelled political correctness concerning representatives of the main ethnic groups of California unfortunately does not extend to Russian yet.

Secondly, teachers of American schools do not have qualifications in the issue of psycholinguistics, which explains the basic processes of assimilation of linguistic basics by the children’s brain and therefore cannot give you practically useful advice. They operate on the stereotype of the dangers of bilingualism, reigning for many decades in the educational system of the United States. It is easier for them to protect themselves from your claims about the performance of your child, using his bilingualism as a negative component, than to approach the training of your baby with creativity and interest. This is even more regrettable because even in the American media there is talk of the benefits of child bilingualism.

Children’s bilingualism (children’s bilingualism) is a phenomenon in which a child speaks two languages, and the use of languages ​​does not interfere with each other. Science has long established (and is now finally recognized in the United States) that, with successful development, bilingual children are ahead of their peers in many respects at school age and older. Even in those cases when there is a slight lag behind peers at an early age, bilinguals catch up and overtake classmates in many ways. Among the interesting moments in the development of bilinguals is the fact that older preschoolers and bilingual schoolchildren are more interested in linguistic phenomena than monolinguals, since his linguistic experience is much wider. The fact is that for each new language new neural circuits are required, first of all, associated with motor and coordination of the speech apparatus. Which, incidentally, partly explains why the second language should be started as early as possible, and best of all, from birth: in this case, the development of the brain occurs simultaneously with the development of bilingualism.

Bilingual children also have a number of cognitive advantages that can improve attention, self-regulation and self-control, develop the ability to work with conflicting information, conduct effective communication and add results in communicating with people and solving problems.

In general, there is evidence that children who speak two or more languages ​​learn better, find contact with new people faster, more effectively establish logical connections between phenomena and concepts of the surrounding reality, feel more free in our own, such a difficult world.

I hope that this information will help doubting parents make a decision in favor of bilingual education. Give your children peace! I want to express my deep gratitude to the school “On Tarzanka” for the enormous contribution to the enlightenment of our children, for their key role in the difficult task of spreading and popularizing bilingualism. It is also gratitude on a very personal level, to all the teachers and the school administration for the help and support that they rendered to my family in the education and upbringing of my son. To confirm many of my postulates, I would like to provide for your attention several interesting articles on bilingualism that have appeared in the American press over the past 2 years: