A bilingual brain is smarter and healthier than a monolingual brain across the life span. Studies show that the “exercise” required to differentiate between two languages benefits the brain significantly. For example, infants who hear both English and Spanish show quicker learned responses to changes in their environment. Students who learn in two languages grasp new concepts more quickly; plus, once reading is mastered in one language, adding a second is easy. Elderly individuals who speak two languages show resistance to mental decline, such that even when Alzheimer’s is visibly affecting their brain matter, they remain functional at a higher level than the deterioration would indicate.
Since acquiring a second language promises these distinct advantages, the question is how to become bilingual, and that is found in looking at how we usually learn our native language. We don’t apply academic effort because our minds just take it in as we move through life from infancy. No one says to a baby “Words represent objects. I am going to say a word while showing you an object, but the word’s value is that it refers to that object. Ok? The word for this object is BALL.”
Rather, we show the ball and say “ball.” The baby learns the language and the concrete association all at once, with no explanation. Our brains have amazing capacity to make connections, simply absorbed from an information-rich environment.
The language we use accompanies every activity, every topic. Thus, the best way to learn a second language (or two at once) is to immerse ourselves in it, letting our brains exercise by creating new connections, which empowers better thinking overall.
Therefore, if it is proven that being bilingual helps our brains from infancy to old age and that language is best absorbed from our surroundings, we should seek to incorporate a second language in all we do. One obvious option is for students to learn in two languages every day at school.
Waiting until middle or high school for exposure to second-language vocabulary does not achieve the level of cognitive development that we are talking about here, because it starts too late. The ideal approach is dual language education from pre-school or kindergarten.
Young children learn language naturally, so adding a second language in an academic environment is a simple way to optimize our children’s mental development without requiring additional instructional time. This has been offered at Birdwell Elementary since 2000 and has been launched this year at Dixie Elementary for kindergarten and first grade classes. We need more such programs in TISD for students.
Why bother? For generations, we have enrolled our children in activities to broaden their experiences. Kids these days regularly participate in team sports, music lessons, art camps and science experiments, despite the fact that most of us do not end up building our lives around ballet, baseball, piano, sculpting or chemical blends. We recognize the value of a well-rounded life, learning to appreciate beauty, teamwork, discipline and practice.
These activities are less about specifically applicable skills, but rather developing beneficial attitudes and perspectives, so we consider them worth our time, money and effort. Our current society prioritizes maximizing academic outcomes for our children and pursuing lifelong health. Dual language education does both, starting with better learning for all children, not just those who speak Spanish at home. We need more Tyler schools offering dual language programs at all grade levels to offer our kids their maximum potential.
Larissa Smith is a graduate student in the social work program at Our Lady of the Lake University. She grew up in Tyler and graduated from TISD schools. Her children now attend the dual language program at Birdwell Elementary via school transfer.