Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bilingualism Makes Children Smarter

Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French and German although English is often used as a compromise to solve "the linguistic problem". However, far too many Belgians and foreign residents are still monolingual. One of Belgium's assets in attracting foreign investment has always been the multilingual skills of its workforce yet through militant defence of one language, they are losing this advantage and I for one believe that is a backward step.

Scientists at the Free University of Brussels (VUB - Vrije Universiteit van Brussel) have now demonstrated that bilingual children solved simple math problems using less brain activity than monolingual children. The addition of a language trains the brain to solve cognitive tasks more easily. This is a major reason for studying Latin as the endurance of all those complicated noun declensions and verb conjugations cause neural pathways to fuse which aid in other applications. I remember learning the pluperfect passive subjunctive but can no longer remember what that means!

Piet Van de Craen, a neurologist at VUB who lead the study, says that the brain scans of the children indicate that bilinguals use less energy to complete cognitive tasks much like an experienced driver no longer has to "think" about how to drive a car. His conclusion is that bilingual education helps to "build a better brain".

According to Sociologist Morris Massey, ages 0-7 are known as the Imprint Period when children absorb everything like sponges and when the most neural pathways are fused. This is the optimum time for learning the basics of anything.

The Belgian school system is considered one of the best in the world but laws in Wallonia and Vlaanderen now forbid children to study a foreign language before year 5 at around ten years old, while studies indicate that language learning yields the best results when started as young as possible.

This makes no sense. I was fortunate to start learning French at an English school from age four giving me an edge, particularly with the accent. My sons were educated in Spanish schools for three years from age 5-8 and 2-5 and coped perfectly with being bilingual. In the last year they attended a private English school with 20% of their curriculum in Spanish. After three years in Flemish school, they are now in the top half of their class, even in Flemish moedertaal, and the older son is in his second year of learning French, with test results always 18-19 out of 20. His only problem is writing. He started learning in an English school at age 4, then moved to the Spanish way and now Flemish. He is receiving extra help with writing before moving on to secondary school.

CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) is a technique to integrate a second "target language" into the curriculum which means that some subjects are taught in the second language, the time increasing as the child grows older. CLIL has been endorsed by the European Union which incorporated it into its 1995 initiative calling for every European citizen to have mastered three languages by the time he or she leaves secondary school.

Dr Van de Craen was asked whether there were any negative aspects of starting foreign languages early. He pointed out that any skill is best when mastered young, eg learning a musical instrument or chess. The only drawback would be spending more time on the chosen activity than on something else but that would be a conscious choice.

One concern has been that studying a second language will affect the development of the native language. Again he says that a child fluent in Dutch who begins an education with 20% in French will not develop only 80% of his Dutch. "It is 100% plus 20. It has nothing to do with losing something; you gain something".

"Additive bilingualism" is tied to evidence that multi-lingualism trains a child to learn how to learn, increasing competency across other subjects.

The UK dropped the compulsory learning of a foreign language in 2002 but has now made a U-turn. From 2010, learning a foreign language will be compulsory from age 7-14 although not compulsory right through to GCSE at age 16. I applaud the first half of this decision.

The European Commission states that the success of CLIL has continually increased over the ten years since it was first introduced.

The new Flemish Minister of Education, Pascal Smet, has publicly supported multilingual education and might be persuaded to introduce bilingual education into Vlaanderen.

© Antonia Harrison 2009, the English Hypnotherapist in Belgium uses hypnotherapy and Neuro Linguistic Programming to help people to make positive change.

Further reading:
Flanders Today article "Educating the Better Brain"
Piet Van de Craen
All UK primary schools to teach foreign languages by 2010

Visit Living in Belgium for information on what's on, where to go, photos and useful tips for making life in Belgium more interesting.

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