All In: The Benefits of Being Bilingual and Biliterate
In August 1992, my wife, children and I moved to Japan. I had accepted a job as a principal at an international school in Tokyo. We moved from our familiar and comfortable life in Washington state to one that was exciting, confusing, and, initially, very difficult. Much of the difficulty came from not speaking, reading or understanding the language around us.
One of my most vivid memories was the first time I could identify words spoken in Japanese. For the first couple of months, the language around me was nothing more than sounds and syllables strung together. I couldn’t find words or meaning.
One morning, on the train, I suddenly realized that the conductor’s announcement was composed of three distinct sentences, and I actually knew a few of the words. I could perceive language and assign some meaning to parts of it. I wanted to jump up and shout for joy. A whole new world was opening up to me.
Language is an asset; it is the way we engage with the world around us. To be literate in multiple languages is a gift.
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is working to ensure that all of our students have access to the gift of multilingualism. MCPS offers Spanish, French and Chinese elementary one-way immersion programs at seven schools. For the 2017-2018 school year, we launched two new two-way language immersion programs at Brown Station and Washington Grove elementary schools. These programs, in addition to the program at Kemp Mill Elementary, bring together native English speakers with students who are native speakers of the partner language for an immersive language experience. Next year, we plan to continue our investment in world language acquisition by adding two more two-way immersion programs and exploring pathways to ensure world language exposure for all elementary students.
As the article 6 Potential Brain Benefits of Bilingual Education indicates, research shows that bilingual education (two-way immersion) has multiple and long-lasting benefits for students. The author interviewed seven researchers in three countries for this article, and identified six long-term benefits of bilingual education:
- Attention – Speakers must pay close attention to when to speak which language to whom in what situation. This develops the ability to switch tasks, which develops the executive function ability in the brain.
- Empathy – Young children must use social cues to determine when to speak which language.
- Reading English – Research shows that students in dual-language programs in elementary school outperform their peers in reading English by one full year in middle school.
- School performance and engagement – Studies covering six states and 37 districts show that students in these programs have slightly higher test scores, better school attendance, fewer behavioral problems, and parents who are more involved, and they seem happier.
- Diversity and integration – Because native English speakers are placed in classrooms with recent immigrants, classrooms tend to be more ethnically and socioeconomically balanced than monolingual or one-way immersion classrooms. There is evidence that all children benefit from this.
- Protection against cognitive decline and dementia – This long-term benefit seems to be related to the changes in brain structure caused by learning two languages.
In Maryland, the benefit for students also include receiving the Seal of Biliteracy on their high school diplomas.
These benefits resonate even more in Montgomery County where diversity is one of our greatest strengths. Many students bring languages other than English with them to school each day. Montgomery County must take advantage of our diverse, multilingual population. We must establish these language opportunities across more of our elementary schools and then extend them into the middle and high schools.
Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine is credited with saying, “The world is far too rich to be expressed in a single language […] the essential aspects of our experience can never be condensed into a single description. We have to use many descriptions which are irreducible to each other…”
As our world becomes even more interconnected, Mr. Prigogine’s statement is even more poignant. MCPS is committed to providing our students with the gift of multilingualism so that they can understand and succeed in the world around them.