The United States leads the world in a multitude of ways, including technological advances, social developments, and economic power; however, the idea of cultural superiority has prevented the country from reaping the multifarious benefits of bilingualism. Currently, only nine percent of American adults are bilingual compared to over fifty percent in Europe (Christian, Pufahl, & Rhodes, 2005, p. 226). This gap reveals the contrast of the importance placed on foreign language education between the two regions. Due to the lack of reform, the United States has limited itself from being competitive in the age of globalism.
Nonetheless, this setback is only temporary and can be remedied. With adequate bilingual instruction starting at an early age, the United States will unlock a plethora of psychosocial benefits for its citizens, such as enhanced neural processes and improved interpersonal proficiency. It is only necessary for the modernization and survival of the country.
Before identifying solutions, defining and acknowledging the problems is first step of solving any problem.
The current sentiment in the United States is that many view our own culture superior to other and that way of thinking hinders advancement. Many Americans view foreign language study as subordinate to other core subjects rather than seeing it as equivalent (Christian et al.
, 2005, p. 226). The cause of this mindset can be attributed to the growing prominence of English in the international community and certain pro-English legislation (Wallstrum, 2009, p. 16). For example, the No Child Left Behind Act prioritizes core subjects, including mathematics, language arts, social sciences, and natural sciences, over foreign language instruction (Christian et al., 2005, p. 227). According to Linda Espinosa (2015), the United States is executing the wrong approach to properly enrich dual language learners (DLLs) (p. 40).
Despite the significant increase in DLLs over the past several decades, American education policies have remained stagnant and have failed to accommodate the unique set of students. DLLs in the United States typically come from lower socioeconomic households and immigrant families (Espinosa, 2015, p. 41). As a result, Espinosa (2015) states that most DLL students rely on federally subsidized programs for pre-kindergarten education; however, these programs do not consistently meet quality standards and impose a monolinguist approach (p. 42). Consequently, legislation from policymakers wastes these student’s special endowments. Even the minimal introduction of foreign language in high school is typically unproductive because it is introduced too late in a student’s life. Rather than beginning bilingual instruction during the primary phase of education, most schools in the United States postpone it until the secondary phase. Research by Faruji (2011) indicates that late second language (L2) learners perform worse compared to early L2 learners on all linguistic measures, including decoding, speed, and working memory (p. 39). These discrepancies may not appear to be true problems until one analyzes the countless disregarded benefits.
The first classification of benefits is psychological, which are the effects directly related to the way people think and process information. Due to modern advancements in magnetoencephalography (MEG), neuroscientists have discovered more about the processes that occur during early language acquisition (Espinosa, 2015, p. 43). Espinosa (2015) claims, “We now know that from the earliest days of life human babies have an extensive and innate capacity to hear, process, and even learn multiple languages” (p. 43). Across many studies cited by Espinosa (2015), bilingual infants consistently proved to have heightened neural plasticity and linguistic abilities compared to their monolingual counterparts (p. 44). Consequently, with greater mental flexibility, bilingual children possess greater mathematical proficiency and are more capable of problem-solving (Soderman, 2010, p. 57). Soderman (2010) states, “Children become more aware of the meta-linguistic structures of language” (p. 57). This assertion supports the idea that bilingual children better understand the mechanisms of their native language and can acquire successive languages at an accelerated rate.
Besides just learning a second language, the timing of language acquisition is essential for its cognitive development. There is strong consensus amongst linguistic psychologists that affirms Noam Chomsky’s critical period hypothesis (Espinosa, 2015, p. 47). Espinosa (2015) proclaims, “The first six years of life are an ideal time for children to acquire a second language, as it is the critical period for language development” (p. 47). Following this period, children find it increasingly difficult to learn new languages since they no longer focus on the sounds and grammar of language but rather its contextual applications (Espinosa, 2015, p. 47). Similarly, Faruji (2011) claims that late second language learners do not process language as naturally as early language learners do (p. 38).
This phenomenon is due to the cerebral areas in which each language is processed. For instance, early L2 learners process their second language in the same region as their first language, which provides seamless transition between the two. On the contrary, late L2 learners develop a second neural area to process new languages, which means communication is less automatic. In addition to short-term benefits, early bilingualism aids in longevity of life and helps to combat neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia (Espinosa, 2015, p. 44). Espinosa (2015) clarifies that all of these psychological benefits are not dependent on the language combinations involved (p. 44). For instance, acquiring English as a second language possesses equivalent results as acquiring Mandarin.
Equally important, the second classification of benefits is social, which describes the effects that relate to societal status and the interactions between people. Despite the country’s apathy toward bilingual education, most people are aware of the vast economic benefits from knowing more than one language. Christian, Pufahl, and Rhodes (2005) state, “But in the past few years, globalization and world events have underscored the national need for foreign language skill” (p. 227). Especially in today’s multicultural world, people must learn to be accepting of global cultures and different perspectives. In her concluding thoughts, Soderman (2010) eloquently states: Each child deserves to know that an entire world exists beyond his or her own personal world, and they [sic] need to learn how to bridge the worlds effectively. They will need this as they become adults in a world that will favor citizens of the world over citizens of just a particular country (p. 61).
Her logic holds true at many times in people’s lives. Since bilinguals are more adaptive to new stimuli, they do not fixate on one idea but can rather analyze multiple viewpoints, which is a preferred characteristic for employees in the workforce. The employment advantage is another reason why bilinguals are more competitive in the job market. Furthermore, bilingualism allows people to acclimate into a new society while still preserving their cultural and linguistic heritage (Espinosa, 2015, p.47).
More often than not, DLLs are so entrenched in learning English that they unfortunately lose their native linguistic capabilities. For some families this means their children can no longer communicate with certain members due to a language barrier. Soderman (2010) also discusses that young children provide support groups for one another as they embark on their new educational journey together (p. 56). Companionship creates another reason why an early start is preferred: younger students facilitate language acquisition whereas older students can be obstacles. Young children naturally incorporate new languages into daily interactions, but by the time students enter high school, they are fixated on using their native language.
Despite the overwhelming psychosocial justification for early bilingualism, people continue to have concerns on whether the idea is beneficial and feasible. One main argument against bilingualism is that it will pejoratively affect students’ abilities to learn English (Espinosa, 2015, p. 46). Espinosa (2015) refutes that idea by referencing many studies that illustrate children are capable of learning both their native language and a secondary language (p. 47). Contrary to popular belief, language acquisition is multi-faceted instead of merely being one-sided. Policymakers apply the same logical fallacy when they claim there is not enough time in the day for both core education and foreign languages (Christian et al., 2005, p. 227). As schools in Finland have shown, educators can begin to teach core classes in the students’ second language, thus doubling the efficiency of instructional time (Christian et al., 2005, p.228). Skeptical people also claim that bilingual students are slower tha monolingual students at processing information and therefore are identified as being less intelligent. It is true that bilingual students initially take more time to grasp linguistic concepts; however, this is certainly not an indication of below-average intelligence. In reality this disparity is only temporary and typically diminishes once students reach proficiency in both languages (Espinosa, 2015, p. 46). Finally, certain people believe that teaching foreign languages will divide the nation; however, this assumes that the United States is cohesive in the first place (Wallstrum, 2009, p. 19). Encouraging a bilingual society will in fact promote a new a generation of global citizens.
Once American politicians become cognizant of the potential of early bilingualism, there will certainly be means of implementing it. In order to find ways to bring this idea into fruition, the United States can look to other nations around the world. Christian, Pufahl, and Rhodes (2005) included findings from the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) that analyzed the current educational systems in place from nineteen countries that successfully embrace bilingualism in primary education (p. 227).
Consistently, the fundamental components were an early start, coherent framework, and strong leadership; however, they are codependent on one another. Even with a well-developed curriculum introduced at a young age, without compliance and support from every level of government: local, state, and federal, the system would implode (Christian et al., 2005, p. 227). Despite its arduous appearance, the immense psychosocial benefits of an early bilingual education for American citizens are undoubtedly worth it. The true question is whether or not lawmakers will ever do anything to ameliorate the current situation.