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Why children need to learn foreign languages

Outside the Box – Juliann Talkington

Juliann TalkingtonCognitive Advantages: Foreign languages in general – According to Therese Caccavale, Past President of the National Network for Early Language Learning, “Children who learn a foreign language beginning in early childhood demonstrate certain cognitive advantages over children who do not. Studies have shown repeatedly that foreign language learning increases critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of mind in young children. Students who are learning a foreign language out-score their non-foreign language learning peers in the verbal and . . . math sections of standardized tests.”

Mandarin Chinese – According to Dr. Sophie Scott, a researcher at Wellcome Trust (the largest non-profit in Britain, an organization that focuses on biomedical research), Mandarin Chinese speakers use both the right and left brain lobes when hearing their native language while native English speakers only use their left temporal lobe when hearing English. The left temporal lobe is normally associated with piecing sounds together and the right temporal lobe with processing melody and intonation. “It is not easy to test whether Mandarin speakers have other gifts that set them apart from English speakers, but there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that it may relate to how thought processes operate, according to Scott” (Mandarin Chinese use more of their brain than English speakers to understand language). The study suggests that learning Mandarin Chinese itself may affect the way a child’s brain develops.

Academic Performance: In its 1992 report, College Bound Seniors: The 1992 Profile of SAT and Achievement Test Takers, the College Entrance Examination Board reported that “students who averaged 4 or more years of foreign language study scored higher on the verbal section of the SAT than those who had studied 4 or more years in any other subject area. This finding echoes many experts’ belief that learning a second language can improve not only a child’s aptitude in English, but also enhance creativity and problem-solving skills.” (from the Chinese Language School of Connecticut)

Opportunity: Mandarin Chinese – Mandarin Chinese is spoken by almost one out of every four people on the planet. As China grows in political and economic importance, it is critical that US citizens learn to communicate in Mandarin Chinese and become familiar with the Chinese culture.

Spanish – Spanish is spoken by 500 million people worldwide and by about 50% of the people in the Western Hemisphere. Spanish is also becoming the language of choice in Europe.

Best time to learn: Experts believe that the earlier a child is introduced to a language the greater the likelihood they will become truly proficient.

Learning basic skills, such as language and music, become much more difficult with age.  According to Florida State University professor Dr. Karen Glendenning in her book Brain, Behavior and Learning, “After birth there are continuing changes in the brain.  For example, cell populations in the language area, may decrease by 30 percent between the ages of 2 months and 12 years….”

According to Dr. Lise Elliott with the Chicago School of Medicine, ” We know…. that an infant’s experience can have permanent effects on the wiring of the brain.” At birth the brain contains the cells necessary to handle trillions of processes.  If signals are sent between brain cells, the connections become hard-wired.  However, if signals are not sent between cells, the connections are discarded.  Most researchers believe the hard-wiring/discarding process is complete at the beginning of puberty, leaving adults with many fewer brain connections than infants.

According to the Abroad Language Institute, “The best time for language acquisition is during early childhood…. Young children learn languages naturally by building a second language system alongside their first language; and by absorbing sounds, intonation patterns, structures, and rules of a second language intuitively…. Young brains are inherently flexible and are uniquely wired to acquire languages naturally.”

Types of programs: Foreign language programs for children vary in structure and outcome. At one end of the spectrum are language immersion programs, where more than 50% of the instruction is in the foreign language. At the other end are foreign language experience programs, where classes meet for an hour or less several times a week. The goal of the experience programs is not to develop language proficiency, but to introduce children to foreign languages and cultures. Children in immersion programs experience the most cognitive benefit from the foreign language study and also have the ability to speak the foreign language without an accent.

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