When it comes to the topic of
bilingualism in early childhood education, many parents often find themselves
questioning when – and if – to introduce a second language to their children.
The question being, whether or not the additional language studies would serve
to benefit or inhibit their child’s cognitive developmental process. For some,
the subject may be less of a choice and more of a necessity or way of life
(think homes with bilingual family members already), but for many, the decision
can bring many questions as far as how bilingualism will affect the cognitive
development of their little one.
With decades of research devoted
to studying these effects, scholars and researchers have been focused on the
correlation between multiple language learning and developmental processes for
quite some time now. In fact, many of these studies may seem a bit contradictory
to others, making the outcomes somewhat confusing and raising even more
questions for concerned parents. The truth is, however, as with all studies,
new findings are possible every day and are revised to reflect the most recent and
relevant information based on the latest comprehensive research. In other
words, the more it’s studied, the clearer the picture becomes. So, what does this
mean in terms of the effects of bilingualism on cognitive development?
Bilingualism and Cognitive Development
The number one concern for most
parents considering a bilingual educational tract for their child is whether or
not introducing a second language at a young age will cause confusion during a
critical language learning time. Since understanding communication skills is
critical to the successful development of virtually all other cognitive learning
processes throughout their lives, it’s easy to grasp the basis for parental
concerns for something that could potentially inhibit language mastery. The
question becomes then, are these concerns for cognitive delays warranted, or are
they part of some outdated research findings?
In order to answer that
question, we must first take a look at the full picture. That is, we need to
understand that there have been multiple studies done on the topic over the
years, which inevitably leads to different findings. The key is to examine the
most recent and comprehensive studies available in order to ensure you’re not
looking at older information that has since been rendered essentially
irrelevant. It’s also important to consider all contributing factors involved
with the success rates of bilingual children such as parental involvement and
cultural influences on the overall cognitive development process.
Previous Studies and Findings
Many of the earliest studies are
what are behind the apprehension of today’s parents who are considering
bilingualism for their children. Studies from decades past had showed a potentially
slower learning rate for children who were learning two languages
simultaneously – a rate which they attributed to the “confusion” of studying dual
communication processes. It was believed that children were showing signs of inhibited
learning because they were using both languages simultaneously – or “mixing up”
the language of choice.
What these previous studies
failed to do, however, was take into consideration the familial and
socio-economic factors that helped determine a child’s overall understanding of
communication. They also didn’t fully grasp the degree of focus and ability
these children were exhibiting by simultaneously mastering the concepts of not
just communication, but compartmentalization and empathy as well. Essentially,
in the earliest studies, what was once viewed as confusion has later become
better understood as a heightened sense of cognitive development and overall
communication mastery by young children.
Recent Studies and Findings
In contradiction to earlier research,
the latest studies today have shown immense cognitive
development benefits in bilingual children. Not only has the theory of
confusion been discredited, but researchers have found that children who are
introduced to a second (or third) language during early childhood educational
stages have a much higher level of overall learning comprehension as well as a
more developed sense of values and problem-solving abilities than their monolingual
“Research has shown that,
contrary to what many people once believed, bilingualism does not trigger
confusion, has no inherent negative impact on children’s development and even
has some socio-cognitive advantages,” explains the Encyclopedia
on Early Childhood Development (EECD). These advantages come in the form of
a more developed level of intellectual focus, higher overall test scores, greater
problem-solving skills, a heightened understanding of non-verbal context, and
more flexible cognitive abilities in general. In other words, recent studies have
shown that bilingualism, when introduced in early childhood, not only has no
negative associations with cognitive development, but also comes with a large
number of invaluable benefits instead.
Overall Benefits to Developmental Process
Since the brain function of a
child learning dual languages requires that child to not only communicate, but
correctly choose which language to communicate with, it forces bilingual
children to fine-tune their ability to focus and concentrate. It also requires
a sense of compartmentalization – a skill which will be crucial in later development.
Essentially, young children who study multiple languages are getting a more
well-rounded cognitive development than single language children because they are
inherently learning multiple lessons at once.
“…Bilingual children show some
advantages in understanding the beliefs of others and the communication needs
of their conversational partners, picking out the important variables to solve
a problem and entertaining two possible interpretations of the same stimulus at
once,” writes the EECD.
It is important to remember,
however, that these findings are largely dependent upon the outside factors
involved in your child’s bilingual learning process. In order for your child to
be truly bilingual (and not just a second language learner), requires a great
deal of immersion studying and being surrounded by both languages – not just in
the classroom. In order for young children to gain the greatest benefits from
studying multiple languages, their learning process must be continued at home
and on a regular basis, as well as during in-class studies.