In 1989, Howard Gardner first proposed the theory of multiple intelligences. His theory posits that every human being is equipped with several kinds of intelligence that are interdependent. He developed his theory as a way to improve and challenge current practices in many fields, including education, child development, and even neuroscience. One of the intelligences he proposes is that of linguistic intelligence. To be able to learn and master a language is a specific form of intelligence that is valuable and vital personally and professionally in the 21st century. Parents and other kinds of alternative families around the world are growing in their awareness in the challenges and benefits of raising children in a bilingual environment and even in multilingual environments. This paper will consider the affects of raising children as bilingual with specific attention to how bilingualism affects areas such as learning, language acquisition, identity, and cultural participation. Raising children as bilingual is a multifaceted endeavor that when done well, should prove to serve the children extremely well in the long and short-term, in various aspects of their lives.
There are a number of advantages to raising a child as bilingual. One of the more prominent benefits of raising a child bilingual is that the child will be relatively more intelligent than his/her monolingual counterparts. Bhattacharjee of The New York Times concurs as he contends that speaking more than one language has intensely obvious and practical benefits in a world that is increasingly globalized. (2012) He notes the differences in the scientific research from prior decades (and centuries) to the research and conclusions of scientists regarding bilingualism in the 21st century. More than the ability to conduct conversations with a wider range of people, bilinguals have a higher intelligence relative to their monolingual counterparts. One of the benefits of bilingualism is that bilinguals are just plain smarter. Bilinguals have improved cognitive functioning that are and are not relative to language. (Bhattacharjee, 2012) Bilingualism develops parts of the brains that protect against mental health deterioration, specifically dementia as bilinguals grow elderly. (Bhattacharjee, 2012)
The process may occur at any stage of human development, as there are obviously plenty of cases where adolescents and adults of all ages demonstrate they have the ability to acquire a new language rather than their native ones. Yet, while the process of raising a child as fully and functionally bilingual is not a simple, or quick task, the task is much less difficult relatively when the parents or caregivers begin the bilingual process at the earliest age possible. Teaching children to be bilingual is easily and more effective when done so before and as they are learning to read. Learning the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of a language is not enough to be qualified as bilingual. Language is a living entity that moves and changes, and really, is in a constant state of flux for a number of reasons, many of which could be traced back to the fact that language is a fundamental component of culture.
Culture is something that changes with time and does not remain in stasis; thus, language, as a pillar in culture, changes with time, too. Consider English as an example. It is not one of the oldest languages in the history of humanity, yet in the 21st century, it is one of the most widely spoken, read, and used languages in the world because of the changes the world has seen since its inception. Old English is distinctively different than Middle English, which is again, distinctive from Modern English. Therefore, to teach a child to be bilingual is just more than teaching the child a language. That is a superficial, though at the same critical aspect to bilingualism.
There is nothing wrong with bringing children up bilingually. For the sake of clarity, it's good to be consistent about who speaks which language when. It is also important that the children have enough exposure to the languages through reading and listening to be able to, for example, communicate with family abroad or speak to people their own age outside the home. (Decraene, 2012, "Bringing up bilingual children")
The child must have the language skills and must additionally be fluent and literate in the history, culture, as well as social context in which the language originates or is spoken. Meaning, with English as an example, it is not enough for parents to supply the child with instruction in the English language; wherever the child is going to speak English, the child must know the culture of that place. American English and American culture is very different, though related to, British English and British culture, or Australian English and Australian culture. These are all countries and cultures where English is the native language, but all of the cultures are very different. A bilingual child who has fluency and literacy in English will certainly function in countries such as the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, but the child would have a far more in-depth and meaningful experiences within these countries if the child had literacy and fluency in the cultures of these countries as well.
Bilingualism affords many advantages, including a great number of opportunities to participate in other cultures in very meaningful and non-superficial ways. Cultural participation and fluency is crucial to the full meaning of being bilingual. Language and culture are closely tied together in theory and in practice; thus to be bilingual is more than language fluency; it is cultural fluency and participation. Another advantage of bilingualism is the ability to focus on tasks at hand, the ability to be decisive, and the ability to exercise or improve executive function.
According to several different studies, command of two or more languages bolsters the ability to focus in the face of distraction, decide between competing alternatives, and disregard irrelevant information. These essential skills are grouped together, known in brain terms as "executive function." The research suggests they develop ahead of time in bilingual children, and are already evident in kids as young as 3 or 4. (The Daily Beast, 2011, "Why It's Smart to be Bilingual")
Speaking from personal experience, I was once a teaching assistant at a Japanese-English bilingual preschool. There were many unique and valuable aspects to that position as it relates to me personally, professionally, and academically. One unique aspect of the school is that out of all of the students, only one young boy was fully Japanese. All of the other students had Japanese mothers and non-Japanese fathers, with great cultural variation. Overall, for the students, Japanese was the primary language of the children, but there were several children who were already very bilingual by ages 2 and 3, and there were even a few children who were tri-lingual. One girl had a Japanese mother, Colombian father, knowing English from school and Japanese and Spanish from her home life. There was another girl whose father was Italian (first generation immigrant) and whose mother was Japanese; Luna was fully trilingual.
There were many differences and advantages that were readily apparent in the children who were bilingual and trilingual over the students who were more monolingual, whether it was Japanese or English. Through this particular work experience, I was able to see how the above quotation proved true in real life, within the context of education. The children maintained a surprising level of focus for their age group, part of which should be attributed to their bilingualism. Not only could the young students maintain attention, we saw a high rate in task independent task completion. More students were more likely to complete a task themselves from start to finish.
While some of these traits can be attributed to individual personality and home environment, as the quote implies, some of there demonstrable skills should also be attributed to bilingualism. Besides these traits, I and the other teachers observed that many of the students exhibited abilities related to executive function that were present within them at earlier ages than their monolingual counterparts. This work experience made it very apparent to me the amazing benefits of raising children bilingual.
Early childhood is probably the best and most ideal time for parents and caregivers to initiate the bilingual process. In early childhood, the absorption rate for information is exceptionally high as many aspects of the psyche and personality are forming. It is a great stage to learn many things, especially languages. With reference to the aforementioned work experience at the Japanese preschool, it was particularly advantageous to be teaching the children English as they were acquiring literacy skills.
The process of language mirroring was easier, and by language mirroring, the paper means that the children would have an easier time switching back and forth in vocabulary and syntax at their young age and stage of development. They could switch back and forth between "red" and "akai" with great ease, because to them, all the words were new. They did not have to, as opposed to…