Recently, I participated in the World Language Club William H. Barton Intermediate (WHBI) in Queensbury, where high school students teach foreign languages to 4th and 5th graders for two weeks. This club provides several different opportunities throughout the year for high school and WHBI students to get involved. I remember doing this club when I was younger, although I admit I don’t remember the language I chose. As I was teaching my 4th grade group with the help of two other high school students, I remembered how much fun it was to learn a foreign language as a young child. It also made me think about the benefits of learning a foreign language at a young age. After some research, I found that not only does it make it easier to learn other foreign languages, but it also offers countless other benefits in all walks of life.
One of the main benefits I discovered was “cognitive flexibility”. This basically means that children who know more than one language seem to have a better ability to focus on one thing and modify their response. Both of these actions require self-control, which is an important skill in life. Researchers believe this cognitive flexibility comes from how a child must actively suppress one language while communicating in the other, requiring attention and the ability to be flexible. The link between knowledge of several languages and cognitive abilities is also reinforced by the idea that foreign languages seem to improve the command center of the brain. This enhances their ability to plan, problem solve, and perform other demanding tasks, such as switching attention and remembering information. Additionally, research shows that children who know multiple languages show signs of “increased creativity and mental flexibility,” which may be one reason why learning another language can help protect against, or at least to delay, Alzheimer’s disease. Many of these skills and abilities are just as valuable in the real world as they are in the classroom, and they can apply to adults learning foreign languages as well. It seems that learning foreign languages, especially at a young age, provides many cognitive benefits that will help children succeed as they grow up, both inside and outside the classroom.
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Another important benefit of learning a foreign language at a young age is that it helps children develop curiosity, empathy, tolerance and cultural awareness. Learning a foreign language also means being exposed to the culture from which it comes. This is important for young children as it can help them to be more open-minded and tolerant of other cultures and a way of life different from their own. In fact, research shows that children exposed to foreign languages early on display more positive attitudes toward other cultures. This aspect of foreign language learning applies to all ages, but it is especially important for children to learn to be open-minded from the start, as this sets them up for greater success as they grow. . Tolerance and empathy seem to be things that a lot of people in our society struggle with, so developing these skills in children early on would be beneficial. Learning a foreign language can help children work and cooperate better with others, which is very valuable in school, in the labor market and in life.
Perhaps some people worry that learning a language will confuse young children because they are developing many other important skills. However, studies show that children’s brains are flexible and absorb other languages very well. The ideal time to teach a second language is between the ages of zero and three, but children (and adults) can learn foreign languages beyond that time, with similar benefits. According to a study conducted by Michigan State University, children up to the age of 8 benefit from flexible ears and speech muscles that detect differences between sounds in a second language. Additionally, it has been shown that learning another language does not negatively affect a child’s ability to learn or speak their native language. In fact, it could improve the child’s vocabulary and language skills in their native language, especially since there are grammar and vocabulary rules that people usually only learn through a foreign language. . The advantages of a foreign language are so great that most European students start learning a foreign language between the ages of 6 and 9.
It is clear that not everyone is linguistically fit to teach a foreign language to their children; however, if you have the option of teaching a foreign language at home, the benefits may be worth it. Children should be exposed to foreign languages in school, starting before middle school (the age at which most students in the United States start). While some districts may not have many teachers who are sufficiently fluent in a foreign language or qualified to teach a foreign language, simply teaching beginning phrases, such as “hello”, “my name is ” and how are you?” still be very beneficial to students. Such starter sentences are easily found on a Google search or in a library book, and can be taught quickly through fun exercises. For example, when a student comes into class in the morning, ask how he is (in a foreign language) and ask him to respond. It’s a simple exercise, but also a good way to get kids to learn a basic phrase. Thanks to technology, we are more interconnected than ever, which makes it even more important for children to learn other languages. Exposure to a foreign language at a young age, big or small, helps students develop their curiosity and openness to the world and sets them up for success, as foreign languages, especially Spanish, become increasingly valuable in the labor market. ¿Qué idioma will learn?
Rachel B. Mannix is a senior student and IB graduate at Queensbury High School. She was a student journalist for the Spartan Scoop for two years and also researched and wrote for the City Historian of Moreau in 2020. She took French and Spanish classes in high school and is one of those respective honor societies, in addition to the National Honor Society. She will receive the biliteracy seal after graduating in June.