Humans are born with the ability to learn language. We know this because everyone in the world is fluent in at least one. But so often, the fluency of a second language is much harder to acquire. In the U.S, we can look to the decline in language programs across the country, but how many people do you know who’ve studied a language in school, actually, know it? Not only is there an issue with government policies and language education, but the way it’s taught, when it is present, doesn’t work. What does work is language immersion.
Unfortunately, in the U.S, being bilingual was looked down upon. Many immigrant families chose to remove the native language from the home in order to more easily assimilate into the “American” culture. Still, the English language is not recognized as the official language of the U.S. One in five families living in the U.S speaks a language other than English at home, and now more than ever, bilingualism is widely encouraged based on the years of language immersion program research, which has shown to benefit academic education, cognitive skill development, career opportunities, and cultural understanding.
Language Immersion Success
When students are placed in language immersion programs which consist of at least 50% of the time learning a second language, results have shown to significantly improve a student’s fluency and skills. Immersion programs place the focus on culture, art, and music, allowing students to thoroughly experience the culture associated with the learned language. Such programs also force students to use their newly learned skills in real life settings while building relationships with native speakers.
The most successful programs are those in a country where the language being learned acts as the primary language. Students in such programs are constantly surrounded by the new language whether out on the town, running errands, or studying in the classroom. The ear becomes more susceptible to the pronunciation and accents, casual conversation, and common phrases. When the language is used as a form of survival in a foreign land, it is more unconsciously acquired, with grammar rules taking a backseat.
Language immersion programs are beneficial for learners of all ages, and provides a more authentic experience to language learning than any other form of language education, while adding to the cognitive development of the learner.
In 1997, Armstrong, P.W, and Rogers, J.D conducted a study among 3rd graders. They were split into 2 groups, with one group randomly assigned to 30 minute Spanish lessons 3 times per week. The group who participated in the Spanish immersion courses did significantly better on standardized exams than the group which didn’t. Similarly, in 2001, researchers found that bilingual students did better than their monolingual counterparts on English-based tasks, and scored higher on word-reading, and spelling tasks. Therefore, not only does second-language study help to advance skills in the language being learned, but also improves skills in the first language.
Advantages have been found for bilinguals with regard to their cognitive development as well. Specifically, bilingual speakers have consistently shown dominance related to goal-oriented tasks including problem solving, task-switching, ability to prioritize necessary versus irrelevant information, and mental flexibility. Carlson and Meltzoff conducted a study using Spanish-English bilingual children. The children were split into three groups; native bilinguals, English monolinguals, and English speakers enrolled in a Spanish immersion program. The researchers found that both the bilinguals and immersion program enrollees outperformed the English speakers on tasks which required attention to multiple demands.
A further studied looked at individuals who used to be bilingual, but are now monolingual. This group was compared to a monolingual group, and a fluent bilingual group. Results showed that the individuals who used to be bilingual did better on goal-oriented tasks compared to the monolingual group, but were outperformed by the fluent bilingual group.
Connections in the brain formed after learning a new language can also have great long-term benefits. A researcher looked at the brains of 85 individuals in Northern Italy who were at similar stages of dementia. 45 of those patients were Italian-German bilinguals, while the remaining 40 were either Italian or German monolinguals. On average, the study found that the bilinguals speakers were 5 years older than the monolinguals. The bilinguals had stronger connections between brain areas related to executive function which helped them to cope longer with the damaging effects of dementia.
There are a number of advantages bilinguals have when it comes to career opportunities. Knowing a second language is looked upon favorably by employers because it shows the applicant’s dedication and work ethic in having to learn more than one language. In addition, being bilingual ensures that a prospective employee has a unique ability that can benefit the company. This unique skill often times puts bilingual candidates in a better position to negotiate salary and benefits, which has led to a 5%-20% increase in pay over candidates who only speak one language.
In recent years, opportunities in healthcare, customer service, and marketing have required a second language. These positions limit opportunities to bilingual candidates only, excluding monolingual applicants. With an abundance of job opportunities, bilingual candidates often feel more confident in their ability to land a position, and therefore, are able to take more, potentially, beneficial career risks than others.
If communication is what bridges cultural gaps than those who speak more than one language are on their way to uniting the world. Traditions and customs are different for every culture, and bilinguals have the advantage of learning and understanding at least two. Because of this ongoing interaction with two cultures, bilinguals often face cross-cultural issues which open their minds to the ways in which different cultures do things differently.
It’s also important to note that the ability to speak more than one language allows an individual the opportunity to travel more extensively. About 18 countries in the world are considered native English speaking countries, and 20 are considered native Spanish speaking. Being bilingual in English and Spanish easily doubles the amount of countries one would be able to extensively travel, than if they only knew one of the languages. Travel is one of the best educators when it comes to learning about cultural awareness and understanding.
It’s never too late to learn a second language, and the cognitive benefits of bilingualism begin to take place when more connections in the brain form from during the language learning process. A language immersion program will surely help you to advance your abilities faster, while language and cultural understanding lead the way.