Anyone who has traveled abroad recognizes that most people in other countries can communicate in more than their native tongue. While that ability may result from the proximity of neighboring cultures, the United States contains a multitude of cultures within its borders. Thus. learning a second language certainly presents many benefits, not only for the individual, but for American society as a whole. The positive effects of knowing a second language begin in early childhood.
A host of studies available through the Education Resource Information Center offer some of the many positive results of early second language training. A booklet entitled Why, How and When Should My Child Lean a Second Language? presents some compelling arguments for second-language acquisition at an early age. For example, some research indicates that children between the ages of birth and pre-adolescence are more likely to achieve higher levels of fluency than those who begin foreign language study in adolescence. Researchers have found that while young children have an innate ability to learn language rules, this ability diminishes by adulthood.
Furthermore, parents and educators who express concern that introducing a second language to a young child may have detrimental to his primary language acquisition need not worry, as the opposite effect seems to occur. Bilingual four and five year olds tested in the late nineties demonstrated better understanding of the printed word than their monolingual age-mates. Thus, learning another language appears to enhance knowledge of the native tongue. While foreign language study in pre-school and elementary school allows for greater growth, any exposure to a second language and its culture is beneficial. Along with language study comes the understanding of the speakers and their cultures. People can learn languages at any age.
Although young children may be more proficient at pronouncing like native speakers, older individuals are more efficient at expanding their vocabulary and comprehending the more complicated structural aspects of the language. And the benefits extend beyond the ability to communicate in another language. These include improved overall school performance, superior problem-solving skills, and achievement on standardized exams like the SAT’s.
A number of studies point to the positive relationship between foreign language and English language arts achievement. In fact, the College Board reported that test-takers with at least four years of foreign language study scored higher on the verbal section than students who had studied any other subject for that same duration. Those who receive second language instruction tend to be more creative and better at solving complex problems than their mono-lingual counterparts. Truly bilingual people outperform others in intelligence tests, perhaps enabling them to achieve greater intellectual flexibility.
Beyond the classroom, bilingual and multilingual people have access to a greater number of career possibilities and develop a deeper understanding of their own and other cultures. Knowing a second language ultimately provides a competitive advantage in the workforce by opening up additional job opportunities. One of the keys of success is communication. Educating citizens in more than one language enhances the effectiveness of the work force and contributes to improved international relations. Society can reap the rewards of high quality foreign language education.