5 Top Takeaways: Following the Science on Bilingualism - Early Learning Nation

5 Top Takeaways: Following the Science on Bilingualism

Because we’re still working remotely and not yet taking our Early Learning Nation Studio on the road during this time, stay tuned as ELN recaps Top Takeaways from important conversations, town halls, webinars and virtual events from the Early Learning field. And visit our Early Learning Nation channel on YouTube for interviews with leaders from education, child development, business, politics and more.

On June 6, the Campaign for Grade Level Reading and Early Learning Nation magazine teamed for a webinar called “Following the Science: Bilingualism as an Asset Supporting Early Brain Development.” Moderated by journalist Leigh Giangreco, the conversation generated enthusiastic comments in the chat and mobilized participants to work toward change in their communities. “We need better policies and more leadership,” said Robert Stechuk, Ph.D., director of Early Childhood Education Programs, UnidosUS.

Here are our takeaways:

1. Bi- and multilingualism are the norm. Most people around the world speak more than one language, said Viorica Marian, Ph.D., professor at Northwestern University’s School of Communication and author of The Power of Language. The United States has among the greatest share of monolingual people, and many mistakenly assume that English is our official language, but the percentage of bilingual speakers is rapidly growing. Upper middle class families understand the power of bilingualism, she noted, but in low-income immigrant families, children are often pressured to stick with English.

Claude Goldenberg, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Stanford University, (who was born in Argentina and grew up bilingual), said, “There’s an overlooked American tradition of bilingual education,” which various cultural moments—for example, anti-German sentiment during World War I—have suppressed over the years. He described bilingualism as “an intellectual and cultural resource and tradition we’re not taking full advantage of.”

2. Language is good for the brain. When it comes to young minds, Marian said, “The richer the input the better.” She referred to language acquisition as a way of “building other roads to reach your destination.” The early years are when these neural pathways are the most agile. Furthermore, bilingualism has been shown to postpone dementia and cognitive decline in seniors.

Martha Martinez, Ph.D., senior director of Research and Evaluation, SEAL (Sobrato Early Academic Language), asserted, “Reading is an inherently cultural activity.” In other words, denying or restricting children’s access to their cultural heritage impedes early literacy. Knowing more than one language increases awareness of language components and the way language works.

SEAL, a research-based English learner and bilingual education model, has been working with educators and school leaders from more than 100 elementary schools and 130 preschool classrooms in California for 12 years. While schools in the state are required to provide access, services and grade-level content for multilanguage learners, this often isn’t the case.

3. Discrimination is rampant. According to the National Latino Family Report, 20% of Latino children encountered bullying or shaming for speaking Spanish at school within the last year. Speaking with an accent or displaying other signs of coming from another culture can subject children and families to negative stereotyping and to what George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Discrimination is passed down from generation to generation, and parents who have been subject to it may want to protect their children by discouraging their home language, but when we, as a society, confront racism and bigotry, we can normalize bilingualism and recognize it for the asset that it is.

4. Misinformation persists. Stechuk summarized the report “Crucial Conversations: Discussing Early Dual Language Development with Speech/Language Therapists.” Despite decades of science showing that infants and toddlers can distinguish among two or more languages, so-called experts continue to tell parents otherwise. Too many teachers, pediatricians and speech therapists continue to embrace the outdated and harmful myth that bilingualism interferes with literacy. “Don’t bring in Spanish now,” one mother was told after her child’s cochlear implants were removed. “You don’t want to confuse him.”

In too many circles, the cultural skill known as code switching continues to be regarded as evidence of disability. “Teachers get caught in the battle,” Martinez said. “They need more support and policies that recognize complexity and diversity.”

5. Educator training is part of the solution. According to Stechuk, postsecondary curricula for teachers often lack coursework about dual language development or cultural responsiveness. Martinez urged colleges to tell educators in training: Nurture their genius, don’t squash it.” School administrators, Goldenberg said, need to build respectful community relationships. “What do good teachers do?” he asked. “They create a sense of belonging. They create the opportunity for learning, starting every morning. Otherwise you lose the whole day“

Bilingualism Resources

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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