LSJ Opinion

The undeniable benefits of learning a foreign language

Schools like Academie Lafayette, a French immersion public charter school, may give kids an advantage in everything from math skills to future employment.
Schools like Academie Lafayette, a French immersion public charter school, may give kids an advantage in everything from math skills to future employment. kmyers@kcstar.com

This is part of a series on the power of learning more than one language.

I was born and raised in a small village in Cameroon, a country where French is spoken as are an identified 275 dialects.

Traveling in any direction from my village for no more than 10 miles would put me in the middle of a dialect totally new to me. Even in our home, my siblings and I communicated in one language with our mom and in another with our dad. Both were raised in different villages and met at market.

My multilingualism is similar to that of millions of other children who are exposed to multiple languages early in their lives. Simply speaking to infants in two languages allows them to learn both in the same time it takes most babies to learn one. Their brains become more flexible, and better able to multitask.

Current research provides quantitative and qualitative evidence of the positive effect of foreign language education upon the basic skills of elementary students. Let’s mention just a couple.

Research at the Boston International School notes this: “Students who learn a second language score higher on mathematics and logic tests, are more proficient with problem-solving activities and demonstrate more intellectual flexibility.”

Similarly, third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders studying languages showed significantly higher scores on Basic Skills Language Arts Test than a similar group of nonparticipants. By fifth grade, the math scores of language students were also higher than those of non-language students.

Experimental studies in elementary schools show clear evidence of the advantage of exposure to a second language in early ages. Third-graders in New York City and suburban area schools were taught conversational French for just 15 minutes daily. After one year they were evaluated.

Their scores on the Stanford Achievement Test compared with those of children who had not received French instruction revealed statistically significant differences in favor of the French experimental group, with no regards to social classes, ethnic or cultural backgrounds.

It is proven that learning a second language improves the learner’s understanding of his native language skills. Foreign language learning from grade 3 through high school is shown to increase expressive oral productivity in students’ native languages, and graduating seniors showed significant superiority in performance on achievement tests in English when compared with non-foreign language students.

In general, learners of a second language develop a wide range of vocabulary, syntax, phonology and reading that have long-term benefits in their mother language.

Learning a second language develops in children higher self-esteem, measured risk taking, and the desire to interact with people from other cultures. The earlier the child starts learning a second language, the more quickly it will enrich and enhance her mental development. Bilingual children are open more to learning other languages, and learning a second language makes it easier to learn a third and a fourth.

In today’s increasingly competitive and global economy, parents and educators who fail to offer children the opportunity to learn a second language will be preventing these children the ability to enrich their lives and prepare for professions domestically and abroad.

Today, Missouri is one of the majority of United States that require a certain number of years of one or more foreign languages for college admission. In addition to an acceptable score on Graduate Record Examination, an increasing number of graduate programs require proficiency in at least one foreign language.

Emmanuel Ngomsi is the president of All World Languages & Cultures, Inc. He consults, trains and coaches on intercultural communication, equity, diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at www.universalhighways.com

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