Young children are like sponges when it comes to learning, no matter the subject. Because of their willingness to learn and retain new information, many elementary schools teach students additional languages.
According to Rabbi Simcha Dessler, educational director at Hebrew Academy of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights, and Lucia Heddleson, world languages chair at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, there are many reasons for children to learn at least a second language.
“In addition to augmenting various forms of capital, like social, cultural and identity, second language acquisition promotes awareness of global diversity and cultural sensitivity,” Heddleson noted. “Second-language acquisition promotes awareness of global diversity and cultural sensitivity.”
She added that research points to increased brain plasticity, especially the positive effects on more authentic pronunciation when learning the language as a child.
Dessler agreed, saying learning foreign languages at a young age has critical cognitive value in concentration and memory.
“In addition, bilingual education promotes connectivity and deepens empathy, understanding and tolerance,” he said. “Children, especially, are quick to learn second languages. With their natural curiosities and innate abilities, language acquisition is easier for them to master than it is for adults.”
Learning a foreign language is done best early on.
Dessler said, “Children at Hebrew Academy are introduced to Hebrew words in early childhood, though foreign language can be incorporated at any age.”
Even though young children are still learning the rules of their native language, also learning a foreign language can boost that process.
“Learning a second language may enhance grammar rules of the student’s dominant language,” Heddleson stated. “A second language reinforce certain grammar rules introduced in the native language, like pronouns. Students learn that language practices, like informal and formal language patterns, are applicable in other areas outside of the classroom.”
Each school approaches language studies differently.
At Laurel School, Heddleson said students are offered opportunities to grow in their language learning through the ability to choose what they study. Options include Hebrew, French, Spanish, Chinese and Latin.
For Hebrew Academy, students are heavily exposed to Hebrew, as it is a large part of the day school experience.
“From becoming proficient in Hebrew texts to finding your way in a gap year or permanent residency in Israel, students are taught that Hebrew matters. It is a language that provides important access to religion, history and culture.”
Both educators said learning a foreign language at a young age can have benefits in later educational endeavors.
“Children exposed to foreign languages benefit because it nurtures curiosity and creativity while expanding listening skills and problem-solving,” Dessler explained. “Experts state that bilingual learners outperform their monolingual peers. A 2018 Pew Study actually concluded that only 20% of American elementary and high school students studied a foreign language and the decline in foreign language learning could have negative effects on future generations.”
Heddleson added, “Some research also suggests that students who are learning a second language while learning their native language score better on various standardized tests, especially reading and vocabulary. There is a greater likelihood that world language learners will be able to better decipher roots of words and definitions based on their language studies.”
But not all learning can be accomplished in the classroom. To that end, parents should also promote language learning at home.
“Cultivating language learning at home can be extremely fun and student-driven, and does not need to be difficult,” Huddleson mentioned. “Any way you decide to do it, cultivating a sense of other awareness is really at the heart of language acquisition, but providing students a chance to interact with others is always a great way to promote learning of any kind.”
Dessler added, “Parents can be supportive by providing opportunities and experiences at home in a fun way. It is only a question of how far they are willing to take it.”
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