Your Brain on Languages

Clip from the documentary, Speaking in Tongues

by Chris Livaccari

Young Americans growing up and seeking their place in this global society need knowledge and skills that are significantly different from those of previous generations. An integral part of global competence is facility in world languages and cultures.

Beyond the clear economic and professional advantages of achieving facility in a language other than English, language learning also has clear cognitive benefits for students of all ages. There are many examples of people who start learning a language late in life who successfully achieve high levels of linguistic proficiency, but studies clearly show that there is a significant advantage for those who have the opportunity to start early. The human brain is more open to linguistic development in the years before adolescence, so children who learn a language during elementary school are more likely to achieve native-like pronunciation. In fact, there is good evidence to suggest that young children who are exposed to a richer variety of sounds at an early age are more likely to develop an ear for new languages in general as they get older.

Having more time in which to learn a new language is an obvious yet potent argument for early instruction. When students get an early start to a long sequence of language instruction, they can more easily achieve high levels of fluency than those who start learning a foreign language in high school. This extended sequences approach is especially important for the increasingly significant yet less commonly taught languages such as Chinese and Arabic, which take longer for students to master than European languages. According to the U.S. Department of State, it takes three or four times as many hours of study for an English speaker to reach an equivalent level of proficiency in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Arabic compared to languages like Spanish, French, or German.

Research also shows that learning another language early has other cognitive and academic benefits. Increased mental flexibility, the ability to shift easily between different symbol systems, improved divergent thinking, and, sometimes, higher scores on measures of verbal ability all correlate with early language learning. On standardized achievement tests, young language learners often outperform their peers who are not studying a foreign language. As anyone who has learned another language knows, it also enhances a student’s understanding of the structure and patterns of English. Perhaps more importantly, the set of linguistic and communicative skills that students develop through learning one foreign language can be applied to the learning of other languages. Even if the languages in question are very different, such as Spanish and Chinese, an early education in one language will make it easier for students to learn another later in life. So, ultimately, the study of language generally is as, if not more important than achieving linguistic proficiency in one particular language.

However, world language courses are dwindling in American schools. Only 25 percent of elementary schools in the United States offered any world languages in 2008, down from 31 percent in 1997, due to the increased focus on accountability in reading and math alone as a result of No Child Left Behind. American secondary schools offer more opportunities yet involvement is still low; currently, only half of all American high school students take even one year of a world language. Like many other academic advantages, language-learning opportunities are less available in urban schools than in suburban or private schools. For the past fifty years, school language choices have remained for the most part the same commonly taught European languages. The American language-education offerings contrast markedly with those of other countries where learning a second language is a higher priority. Twenty out of twenty-five industrialized countries start teaching world languages in grades K-5 and twenty-one of the thirty-one countries in the European Union require nine years of language study.

The “Excellence and Innovation in Language Learning Act" (HR 1994), new federal legislation introduced in May 2011, would dramatically expand teaching and learning of world languages and international education, allowing every young American to become proficient in a second language—in addition to English—within a generation. The goal of the bill is to provide every student access to quality world language instruction as part of articulated K-12 language sequences with the goal of graduating high school students with an advanced level of proficiency and to create a coordinated national and state role for foreign language instruction.  

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