Deciding to raise our son bilingual was one of the easier decisions my husband and I made as to the upbringing of our child. I always knew that I wanted my child(ren) to speak my native language so they will be closer to their heritage and be able to communicate with extended family. My husband was easily on board and we decided to follow the one person, one language (OPOL)* approach, given that my husband is monolingual. My husband speaks to our son in English (and throws in the few Polish words/phrases that he knows), and I speak to our son strictly in Polish.
Yet bilingualism has more benefits than just being able to talk to aunts and uncles.
Increases cognitive skills
When children who are exposed to a second language “get to school age, they tend to have superior reading and writing skills in both languages, as well as better analytical and academic skills,” explained Dr. Naomi Steiner M.D., developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center. Furthermore, bilingualism can promote cognitive flexibility that can be applied to other areas in life that require problem solving.
Contrary to popular belief that learning a second language can hinder a child’s development, research shows that bilingual children acquire language milestones at the same rate as monolingual children. Furthermore, researchers argue that when a child mixes vocabulary in a particular language, they are not confused but instead are using their language resources to fill gaps in their vocabulary in order to express themselves. Hence bilingual children have more language skills at their disposal.
Delays Alzheimer’s disease
Cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok found that bilingualism seemed to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, as reported in The New York Times. In addition, Bialystock’s research indicated that normally aging bilinguals had better cognitive functioning than normally aging monolinguals.
Language is an integral part of cultural identity, which in turn is a form of personal identity. Knowing their family language allows children to fully function and participate in the family circle without the risk of feeling alienated, argues Fred Genesse, professor of psychology at McGill University.
Even if you or your immediate family doesn’t speak the language of your ancestors, learning it together with your child will help you discover more about your roots.
Promotes social sensitivity
Learning a second language not only exposes children to said language but also to another culture. This exposure makes children more sensitive to people from other cultures and countries.
Prepares children for the increasingly global world
Career prospects, particularly in the international business, education, and government fields, are greater for people who speak more than one language.
I wholeheartedly believe that speaking a foreign language is a gift. If you or your family speaks your cultural native language, I encourage you to speak to your child in that language. You have a true gift that many monolingual families pay thousands of dollars to acquire. And if you are a monolingual family, don’t despair! Language acquisition takes time. Start out slowly and gather some children’s books for your child to enjoy.
What are your reasons for going bilingual?
* The OPOL approach is just one of many language systems a family can follow. The Multilingual Children’s Association provides a very informative overview. As mentioned above, we use the OPOL system because that system is most applicable to our family circumstances.