The bilingual advantage and the importance of early learning

What are the advantages of bilingualism for students, and how can we promote a bilingual culture at home for our children. Is there a particular reason why we must start this bilingual process from an early age?

The easy answer, one that’s been parroted time and time again by scientists who have studied cognitive function and learning in children, is that young people soak up knowledge. Like a sponge, if you will.

It’s a common notion that children learn faster and more effectively during their highly malleable formative years, during which their brain cells have high neuroplasticity, or ability to make new connections in response to new stimuli and learnings.

However, this notion comes as no comfort to parents who watch as their children seemingly struggle to learn additional languages. The reality is that learning and intellect are far more complicated than the mere correlation of youth and propensity for knowledge acquisition, and turning a child bilingual is a complex web of interacting skills and scenarios, as we’ll explore in today’s article.

Is language acquisition related to age?

There is truth to the idea of neuroplasticity during youth, and it relates to a hypothesis in language acquisition known as the “critical period hypothesis.” For more than half a century, neurologists have debated over whether there’s a link between age and ability to learn a language, and a spattering of cases involving profoundly deaf children and even feral children has shown that first language acquisition is significantly hampered if it does not take place in early formatting years.

Cognitive scientists have actually pegged the critical period for language to be topping off around the age of 18.

What about learning styles?

However, there is also evidence that age might not necessarily be the primary determinant in language proficiency.

For example, a 2016 study by Dr. Karen Lichtman of Northern Illinois University’s Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures, demonstrated that the type of language instruction produces a significant influence on language acquisition. When groups of adults and children were taught with a constructed language using a variety of learning techniques, including both classroom instruction and play-focused instruction, the adults were invariably superior in language learning.

The theory goes that children appear to have superior language acquisition due to their constant immersion in language in the classroom, whereas adults trying to learn a second language might not necessarily have the opportunities to be immersed outside tutorial sessions or grammar guidebooks.

What form of instruction is best?

Native-like speaking of a second language seems to require immersion from a young age, but it also depends on the style of instruction and the degree of immersion learning. And immersion and naturalistic learning are indeed some of the best ways to acquire advanced proficiency in a second language.

One recalls the 2004 Spielberg film The Terminal, in which Tom Hanks’s adult character, Viktor, hails from a fictional former Eastern Bloc state called Krakozhia. Stuck in JFK Airport for a year due to his country losing sovereignty, he acquires the English language over the course of several months by reading two versions of books side by side or watching the subtitled news.


A bilingual school for global natives

Swiss International School in Dubai holds our bilingual heritage in high regard. Our educational system hails from a country with several official spoken languages, and we are situated in a diverse city with hundreds of cultures intermingling with each other in a remarkable melting pot.

It is only right that our bilingual instruction is carried out in the best possible fashion – by constant immersion with native speakers.

Through our style of instruction, we aim to create truly global citizens among our students, in a world that already considers multilingual Education as the future of education.

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