CHILDREN BILINGUALISM : Harmful or Beneficial?
Children bilingualism has been a well – known controversial topic for the past decades. Even in this advanced era, it is still easy to come across misapprehensions related to it, as people have caused over the years, a large number of citizens alike to think that, learning a second language is not good for a child. Saying generally that, bilingualism weakens children’s cognitive input and output processing abilities, they succeeded in making especially parents, educators and policy makers to believe that, bilingualism is harmful to children, more precisely, to their verbal, intellectual and educational developments. Luckily, in recent years, prominent scientific bodies such as the American Speech-language Hearing Association (ASHA₁) stepped out, to make it publicly known that, this is not true. Contrary to the popular belief, the well respected association voiced out, for instance, the fact that, the speech or language problems encountered by a child learning two languages, “…are not caused by learning these two languages’’. Sharing similar positions against such bilingualism related misconceptions which constitute a major hinder to children second languages learning, thus a leading cause to the deplorable status of second languages acquisition in many countries, other credible bodies of research have also shown, all over the world that, far from being detrimental to children, second–languages learning are rather advantageous to them in many ways, in the sense that it offers them substantial benefits that are cognitive, educational, social, cultural, emotional, practical etc.
Aware that the cognitive input and output processing function of the child is, generally speaking, mainly considered by detractors to be the element that is more affected, destabilized and weakened by the bilingualism experience, the need to explore the real and well established impacts of the bilingual experience on this same cognitive function of the child become therefore necessary. Necessary in the sense that, this would enable us to know, if yes or no, bilingualism is truly detrimental to the bilingual child’s brain. Of course, one can choose to rely in the process, for instance, solely on a statement made by a renowned entity like the DANA Foundation₂ (an international body focuses on brain research), saying that: « The cognitive and neurological benefits of bilingualism extend from early childhood to old age as the brain more efficiently processes information and staves off cognitive decline», to conclude contrary to the popular belief that, early bilingualism has tremendous positive impacts on the child’s cognitive function, thus on his/her brain. But, despite the weight of this fact from the DANA Foundation and the fact that, several other credible scientific bodies such as ASHA, PNAS₃, Hungarian Academy of Sciences₄ etc. have also made it known that, becoming multilingual helps children improve rather on the abilities of their brain and empower their intellectual growth through creative and flexible thinking abilities, it appears that, with all the myths and controversies still surrounding children bilingualism nowadays, exploring once again both the pros and the cons of the problem remains the best thing to do, if we want to make a fair head or tail of it.
It is obvious, the views on children bilingualism are still controversial in this era. But, it is important to know that, it was particularly throughout the 20th century when second languages learning at early age, was tagged by some scientists as the source of “an interference” that appears in the cognitive function of bilinguals, that the misguided conception got some kind of legitimacy. Without further studies, the discovery led these scholars and many of their followers into considering early bilingualism as a potential hinder to children’s cognitive development and even as the cause to so-called children bilingualism related problems named as: speaking later, mixing of words or languages, tip of tongue, weaker verbal skills, etc…; simply because the inference seemed to be a challenging element in the functioning of the brain. But, in the mix of these controversies, it is more important for us to know that, even though, these people were not wrong about the existence of this challenging “interference”, they were therefore wrong eagle-eyed it as a hinder to children cognitive development and as a cause to the children bilingualism related problems stated above. They were wrong because they ignored or didn’t realize then that, the discovered interference, ‘’…isn’t much a handicap as a blessing in disguise’’. Proven by well-established facts, the existence of this interference in the brain of the bilingual child can’t be denied. But contrary to what people think; further research confirm that, it has positive effects on the functioning of the brain. For instance, after admitting the fact that, in the bilingual brain, both languages systems are active even when the individual is using one language, thus leading to situations in which one system obstructs the other, a publication in The New York Times₅ showed, through a certified study that, this controversial and much talked about interference is a ‘’blessing’’ to the bilinguals, because ‘’it forces the brain to resolve internal conflicts, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles’’ and activities. In this study led by Ellen Bialystok, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented to them on a computer screen into two digital bins-one marked with a red circle. In the first task, the children have been asked to sort the shapes but color, placing blue circles in the bin with the red circle. According to the outcome, both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which appears to be more challenging since it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. In this case, the bilinguals were quicker at performing the task.
It is true that, the outcome of this research does not mean that, the bilingual child would automatically be smarter than the monolingual counterparts, as bilingualism is not compulsory a guarantee for intelligence. But, this doesn’t change, at least, the fact that, it is a clear evidence that confirms formally to us that, in children, the bilingual experience improves undoubtedly on the brain ‘s executive function which is a command system that directs the attention processes, such as ignoring distraction to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another, holding information in mind, that are used in planning, solving problems and performing demanding tasks. This is most importantly, just a fraction of collective evidence which shows in this advanced era that, the phenomenon of interference associated with bilingualism and which was long seen as damaging or risky to bilingual children cognitive development is not, in reality. Far from being the source of the stated so – called children bilingualism related challenges mentioned above, which in fact, are not true in every case or remain just temporary phenomenon that disappear with time when learning and proficiency in each language increase, this interference appears to be at the end, a real blessing to the bilingual children, since it has been found to impact positively on their cognitive activities and on their ability to do generally easier, faster and better, cognitive tasks. Above all, these are facts, certified facts meant to awake those who remains glued to the myths or unfounded theories of the past, which keep them from seeing the benefits of children bilingualism rather than seeing it as a source of problems or handicap for children development. These are most importantly calls meant to guide them, at last, to this fundamental understanding: “if a child has a speech or language problems…these problems are not caused by learning two languages.”(ASHA1)
This evidence is also a call, a very important call on people with skeptical attitudes towards children bilingualism for them to know that, there is no harm in introducing a child to bilingualism from a very early age, but rather several benefits for the concerned child. If, for instance, in a 2009 study led by Agnes Melinda Kovacs and Jacques Mehler and approved for publication by the National Academy of Sciences of the United Stated, the cognitive gains in even 7 months-old-bilingual infants have been well established, this is not just to tell us that, even infants of less than a year, have major benefits to gain from bilingualism but to inform us also that children bilingualism is not harmful to kids exposed to it. For this reason and also because, credible research have already confirmed that, most ‘’children exposed to bilingual input typically learn two languages without obvious difficulties’’, it is not wrong but rather advisable to expose children to bilingualism from early childhood in order to let them take earlier, advantages from its various benefits which extend, as proven, from scoring on average on tasks involving creative thinking or problem solving ( Ellen Bialystock, 2004), to showing better self-control (Kovacs and Mehler, 2009) and high level of abstract thought (Diaz, 1985), to transferring their prior knowledge to their second language (Páez and Rinaldi, 2006) to focusing, remembering and making decisions (Bialystok,2001) and many more.
Taking into consideration all these mentioned facts, taking mostly into consideration the fact that, children are naturally primed (having a brain under development which quickly adjust to new language environment’s input and output) to learn easier, faster and better second languages than adults, and considering the numerous and great benefits which are likely to be conferred on kids exposed to bilingualism, there is no more valuable reason for parents, educators or policy makers to deny a child, the opportunity to learn a second language even from a tender age. Even if they might be natural costs (certainly insignificant) to be paid for being fluent in two or more languages, the many advantages of bilingualism on the short and long terms worth the trouble. Raising a bilingual child should therefore be a priority for all parents, educators and policy makers. Because, if it is true that, our wish as parents, educators and policy makers always is to offer our children or wards something extra to enrich their living and educational experience, to make them outstanding among peers, to equip them adequately for their future professional and personal life, there is no doubt that, bilingualism is a great asset that can be used to achieve these aims and to help them develop better the potentials in them. But, to maximize our achievements in that regard or lead other parents, teachers or policy makers into such direction, we should always have in mind that, the benefits confer by bilingualism on the individual show up most strongly if the bilingual experience introduced to the person extends from very early age to maturity. Simply means, the earlier – and – longer we introduce our child to bilingualism – the better the result would certainly be.
- ASHA is the U.S national professional and scientific association for about 191,500 members and affiliates who are certified audiologists, speech-language pathologists, speech, language and hearing scientists etc… www.asha.org
- The Dana Foundation is a renowned philanthropic organization with affiliates all over the world. It supports brain research through grants, publications and educational programs. Founded in 1950. www.dana.org
- PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) of the United Stated of America is one the world’s most cited and comprehensive multidisciplinary scientific journals, publishing only the highest quality scientific research. Established in 1914. www.pnas.org
- Hungarian Academy of Sciences/Institute of Psychology/2009 study led by Agnes M. Kovacs: Cognitive Gains in 7-Months-Old Bilingual Infants.
- The New York Times/ Gray Matter Column: Why Bilinguals Are Smarter…/ March 17, 2012.
CHILDREN BILINGUALISM IN THE GHANAIAN CONTEXT
Why Teaching French (Second Language) From Primary Schools, Should Be A National Priority ?
The importance of promoting children bilingualism can’t be undermined in some countries, including Ghana. Well aware now that, the saying ‘’bilingualism is not good for children” is just an unfounded theory built on misunderstandings, misconceptions and misapprehensions, knowing most importantly that, the earlier – and – the longer bilingualism is introduced to a child, the better is the result for both the child and the society he/she lives in, it is simply rational that, a country such as Ghana: surrounded only by French speaking countries with whom it shares various socio – economic ties, keen to play an active role in regional and global integration and eager to produce in large numbers the men and women capable to respond to the growing need and demand of bilingual intellectuals and professionals on both local and international fronts; makes the learning of French – second language from primary schools, a national priority.
Few years back, a lot were Ghanaians including some stakeholders in our education system who doubted the need of introducing the learning of French as second language to pupils in their very early age, means during their primary schools studies, seeing the move to be detrimental to the educational development of the children. Even though, they believed in the importance of the academic learning of French language in addition to the official English language, they advocated for its learning only from the JHS, thinking back then that, from this level, it should not be cognitively and educationally risky for the pupils. But, gradually, with the understanding of recent facts surrounding and backing children bilingualism, especially with the great benefits associated with it, coupled with the interest of some individuals, educational institutions and governmental bodies as well, the promoting of children’s English – French bilingualism in primary schools can now be seen. Regrettably, despite the ongoing positive change of mentalities on children bilingualism, some citizens still remain in the darken past as they continue to think and say that, the learning of French language in addition to English from primary schools is not suitable, which is totally deplorable. Have they forgotten or didn’t they know that, even before the report of the Education Reform Review Committee’s (GOG White Paper on the Report of the Education Reform Review/Anamoah Mensah, October 2004 p. 29 ) which acknowledged since 2004 that: «It is … well established that an early and routine acquaintance with second, third and fourth language confers on children great advantages in their life-long proficiency in those languages…», the 2002 President’s Committee report (October 2002) had already recommended French to be introduced at the primary school level as (at least) an optional subject?
Few years back, a lot were Ghanaians including some stakeholders in our education system who doubted the need of introducing the learning of French as second language to pupils in their very early age, and to be more precise, from their primary schools studies, thinking the children at this academic level are too young to be introduced to the bilingual experience which they assumed, can be detrimental to their cognitive and educational development. Even though, they believed in the importance of the academic learning of the French language in addition to the official English language, they advocated for its learning to start rather from the JHS. But, gradually, with the understanding of recent facts surrounding and backing children bilingualism, especially with the great benefits associated with it, coupled with the interest of some individuals, educational institutions and governmental bodies as well, the promoting of children’s English – French bilingualism in primary schools can now be seen across the country, especially in private schools. Regrettably, despite the ongoing change of mentalities on children bilingualism, some citizens still remain in the darken past as they continue to think and say that, the learning of French language in addition to English is not suitable for primary schools children; which is totally deplorable. They seem to have forgotten or are still unaware that, aside the concrete facts related to children bilingualism provided all over the world by renowned scientific bodies such as ASHA1, PNAS2, The DANA Foundation3 etc. and even before the report of the Education Reform Review Committee’s (GOG White Paper on the Report of the Education Reform Review/Anamoah Mensah, October 2004 p. 29 ) which acknowledged since 2004 that: «It is … well established that an early and routine acquaintance with second, third and fourth language confers on children great advantages in their life-long proficiency in those languages…», the 2002 President’s Committee report (October 2002) had already recommended French to be introduced at the primary school level (at least) as an optional subject.
Nevertheless, it is just surprising to see people keep thinking in this advanced era and more over in this era of globalization where multilingualism prevails in various sectors of activities that, learning French as a second language is not good for the primary school child, whilst prominent educational experts from our own nation have also confirmed its importance and benefits in national key documents. At this point, it is time for us to move away from this old mentality condemning or undermining children bilingualism because it is this negative and deplorable attitude that is rather disadvantageous and harmful to our children, and also to their future and to the future of our country as well. It is simply time for us to awake and/or to awake others still living in the darken past, to see in the learning of French from primary schools, a beneficial move which our nation shall make official, accessible and compulsory (ideally, from primary schools up to tertiary levels), if there is an aim and a true wish to transform Ghana into a country where students complete their academic studies as bilingual intellectuals and professionals capable to excel in French, in addition to their individual English related skills, whenever and wherever shall be the need or the demand, on both local and international fronts.
Considering the fact that, we now live in an era of increasing globalization where being multilingual in the world and even in the country we live in, is becoming vital mostly in personality and career building, individual and corporate competitiveness and socio – economic development, we need to also emphasizes on the fact that, there is a fundamental need for all us, especially parents, educators and policy makers to come to the realization that, given the chance to Ghanaian children to start learning French from primary schools, to insure their «early and routine acquaintance» with the language and to benefit from the great advantages it confers on young learners on the short and long terms, is a golden opportunity that should be made available to all primary schools pupils. The learning of the language from primary schools shouldn’t therefore be optional, discriminatory neither accessible to private schools’ learners only as seen across the country. It is an advantageous opportunity that should be mandatory in both public and private primary schools for it to be equally ceased by all children from both sectors, since ethics made us already known: In Education, no child deserves to be left behind.
Whether we believe it or not, English-French bilingualism skills are now an asset in a wide range of occupations in Ghana and beyond. Whether or not an individual sees opportunities to use French as second language in the immediate future or within the local and global environments, the benefits present compelling reasons to start the study of the language in addition to the English language very early and to pursue it on a period as long as possible. This explains why, ceasing the opportunity offered by this platform, we call once again on stakeholders in our education system to take seriously into consideration the need of introducing officially the compulsory teaching and learning of French language in primary schools and to work ambitiously on its implementation in both private and public schools, for both individual and national benefits. Because, either we like it or not, with our nation geographical position (in the mix of French speaking countries only) and the ongoing increasing need of bilingual personnel on both domestic and international jobs market in this era of globalization, we have practically no other choice, than raising from now on, knowledgeable and skillful multilingual children, capable to compete later on the world stage or within the borders of our country, region or continent, with their academically well – prepared peers from privileged schools and other countries; if we want and aim at a more brighter future for our citizens from upcoming generations and our homeland Ghana as well..
GOG: Government Of Ghana
ASHA, PNAS, and DANA Foundation: See References related to children bilingualism