Bilingual Advantage: Why Bilingual Students do better in School – in all Subjects!
It’s no secret that we’re big fans of bilingualism here at TimTimTom! We’re so enthusiastic about the topic that we’re offering our new series, The Bilingual Advantage, to showcase just how awesome it is to speak more than one language.
Did you know that bilingual children typically outperform monolingual kids in all academic subject areas?
We’ll look at a few subject-specific examples later, but let’s start with some foundational knowledge about how the bilingual brain works.
Bilingualism and Executive Control…a bilingual advantage
Executive control refers to our brain’s ability to control our attention and switch back and forth between tasks. A high level of executive control means that your brain is very good at focusing on the exact information needed to complete a task, ignoring stimuli you don’t need, and flipping easily from one thing to another.
That’s exactly what bilingual children grow up doing! Babies as young as six months old can already notice when a new language is being spoken. Bilingual people are constantly shifting their brain’s focus based on who they’re with, what task they’re completing, what their goals are, and so on.
If you’ve ever watched a bilingual person seamlessly speak one language with a friend while browsing the grocery aisles and then instantly flip to their second language with a store clerk, then you know what we mean!
Pause for a moment to think about how amazing this is:
When a bilingual child uses a word in one language, their brain has to ignore the corresponding word in their other language. Not only do they have to know and recall the correct word, but they also have to block out the one they don’t need. Incredible!
How does strong executive control translate to greater academic success for kids?
Well, bilingual children have been flexing their executive control muscles for so long, their brains are already primed to focus better, ignore distractions, and switch easily from one activity to another.
That really comes in handy when the teacher moves from an art lesson about the color wheel to a review of yesterday’s math homework!
Five Academic Areas Bilingual Children Excel At
Problem-Solving…a bilingual advantage
Bilingual children are great at problem-solving! All those mental gymnastics of flipping from one language to another translates into some stellar problem-solving skills. A study published in 2016 showed a significant advantage among bilingual toddlers when faced with complex tasks.
One such task? Young children were asked to place big blocks into a big bucket and small blocks into a small bucket; then, they were asked the opposite. Small into big; big into small. The bilingual tots outperformed their monolingual peers on these so-called “conflict-inhibition” tasks, demonstrating some excellent problem-solving skills!
Reading, Vocabulary, and Creative Storytelling…a bilingual advantage
A study by the University of Alberta found that bilingual children are fantastic at telling creative stories! The researchers discovered that these children, who had been exposed to two languages since birth, used just as many vocabulary words as their monolingual counterparts, and they showed a great deal of cognitive flexibility. The result? Bilingual kids can tell some pretty amazing stories!
Another study in Portland, Oregon found out that dual-language students outperformed their monolingual peers in English-reading skills (source)
Since reading skills, vocabulary, and creativity in storytelling are all excellent predictors of academic success, this is very good news!
Standardized Test Performance…a bilingual advantage
There is plenty of evidence that even relatively small amounts of exposure to or instruction in another language can improve a child’s academic success.
Check out this roundup of research on the relationship between second language learning and improved test scores.
One example? A 1997 study looked at the test scores for third graders who received 30 minutes of Spanish instruction three times a week. At the end of the semester, the students who were taught Spanish scored significantly higher than the ones who did not. And that was just with 90 minutes per week!
Spatial Reasoning…a bilingual advantage
Bilingual benefits don’t stop with just the linguistic advantage! Being bilingual can also make you better at spatial reasoning. Researchers asked study participants to complete a variety of spatial reasoning tests. For example, they had to compare diagrams of like and unlike pairs of knotted and unknotted ropes presenting in different orientations.
The bilingual participants were able to complete these spatial reasoning tasks more quickly and more accurately than the monolingual participants.
Ability to Hypothesize in Science…a bilingual advantage
Bilingual students have an advantage in science class too! A 1980 study at Georgetown University showed that students who spoke more than one language consistently produced higher-quality scientific hypotheses. Their written work on the subject was also more complex and robust in terms of the quality of language and sophistication of the sentence structure used.
It’s never too early—or late—to start exposing your children to other languages! At Tim Tim Tom, we are on a mission to make bilingual life fun, accessible, and easy for families. Check out our titles today, and start customizing your next book for the budding Einsteins in your life.