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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Students benefit from bilingual education

<nly Spanish words I knew when starting kindergarten were “pineapple” and “bear”—“piña” and “oso.” Therefore, it was with great fear that I boarded the bus to Francis Scott Key School (“Escuela Key”), the public bilingual Spanish-immersion elementary school in my hometown of Arlington, Virginia. Ever since then, however, I have never looked back, and I will always be grateful that my parents enrolled me in bilingual education. A bilingual education is critical in child development as it exposes children to diversity, helps improve cognitive skills and sets children up for future success.

Bilingual schools create a diverse environment through their students, faculty and staff, exposing children to a myriad of cultures and perspectives from a young age. In my elementary school, around half of the students and teachers were from Latin America. Yet, I was not even cognisant of my extremely diverse community until I was much older. As a child, a diverse community was all I knew, and therefore that was where I belonged and what felt “normal” and like home. Thanks to my early exposure to diversity, I was taught to be comfortable with difference and how to relate to people from varying backgrounds. This skill is extremely important, especially at places like Carleton where the student body represents a plethora of beliefs, heritages and traditions. Some of my most valued friendships are with people in completely different life situations, such as my friends who live in a small, rural community in Panama. To not fear diversity is one of the most valuable life lessons, inherently taught in bilingual education, and even more important to learn in today’s increasingly globalized world.

Besides promoting diversity, bilingual education has been found to greatly improve cognitive skills in children. According to Viorica Marian, Ph.D., and Anthony Shook, a bilingual brain is better at paying attention and task-switching than a monolingual brain. Those who are bilingual are also proven to be better at managing conflict. Better yet, these positive effects of bilingual education appear in infants as young as seven months. Bilingual education can also help learning abilities. Once two languages have been learned, it is even easier to master a third. Furthermore, the benefits of bilingualism extend into adulthood and old-age by helping prevent age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and memory loss.

Finally, bilingualism sets children up for future success. Starting in the classroom, higher level language classes such as college courses are less challenging if one has been through a bilingual education. Personally, I have found my ability to determine if something “sounds right” very useful in Spanish classes. This level of familiarity with a language comes naturally in a bilingual education but is much more difficult to obtain when starting language classes in high school. Bilingualism is advantageous beyond higher level education as well. Being fluent or near fluent in another language opens up many unique and eye-opening travel opportunities in order to further immerse yourself in the culture of your non-native language. Furthermore, in today’s globalized society, the ability to speak multiple languages is sought after in job applicants for a vast array of industries.

Bilingual education is extremely advantageous as it exposes children to diversity, leads to tangible cognitive benefits, and leads the way to long-term success. Sadly, a 2011 Gallup poll found that only one fourth of Americans can speak a language besides English well enough to hold a conversation. Given the numerous benefits of bilingualism, parents should take advantage of bilingual schools offered around the United States. Furthermore, there should also be increased access to free, public bilingual schools across the country. My bilingual education has shaped me more than I realize and has opened so many windows of opportunity that I otherwise would not have been privy to. From “pineapple” (“piña”) and “bear” (“oso”) I have progressed to “hopes” (“esperanzas”) and “dreams” (“sueños”) and I do not plan on stopping any time soon.

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