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Does Being Bilingual Help Academic Performance?

Harvard University
Bilingualism proves to have multiple pros and cons.

Do students who speak one language at home and a different one in school have a “leg-up” on their fellow classmates? Scientists and researchers have been asking themselves this question for a while now and they have come up with varying results.

To start, for someone to be bilingual, it means that they are able to fluently speak and comprehend another language on top of their mother tongue. But does this ability provide any further benefit besides being able to more comfortably interact with foreign languages or experience more cultures of the world? Some people believe it does and provides them with a greater ability to learn, while others think its just a nice to have.

In the early 20th century, scientists thought that being bilingual actually hurt the patient’s IQ and not helped it. They believed that it would slow down the child’s academic performance and hurt their intellectual development over their childhood as they switched back and forth between their languages.

Although scientists no longer believe this, they still have found research that suggests that bilingualism does not provide a cognitive benefit. In a research conducted by Emily Nicholas, Faculty of Education postdoctoral scholar in the Developing Brain Lab, comparing monolingual to bilingual children, the bilingual children proved no cognitive advantage over the other children.

In an interview with a multilingual sophomore at North Allegheny Intermediate High School, she explains how she doesn’t believe her multi-language knowledge provides her any benefit in the school setting. “I speak Italian and Spanish on top of my English,” she states,”but, I can’t think of many times where knowing those languages has been applicable in a school setting.”

The student continued on to say that, ”Aside from Italian being tangentially related to music scores, which could be helpful in Chorus, I don’t find any benefits.”

Although there have been experiment results and students that say bilingualism has no cognitive benefits, the tests that have shown benefits considerably outnumber those who do not. In a study out of Milan, they found that elementary students who spoke more than one language outperformed those who could only speak one language when it came to multitasking. The ability to move back and forth between languages not only gave them better multitasking abilities, but it also developed their brains more than those who only spoke one.

Although there have been experiment results and students that say bilingualism has no cognitive benefits, the tests that have shown benefits considerably outnumber those who do not.

In addition, the researchers in Milan concluded that people who were able to speak two or more languages contained more gray matter, which led them to be able to better control their emotions, motivation, and even decision making. Gray matter is the part of the brain that controls learning, speech, and cognition.

Dr. Hedderman, French teacher at North Allegheny Intermediate High School, states that, “Learning a language is like learning how to play a new musical instrument. It works different parts of your brain that aren’t normally stimulated to learn other things.” Containing more gray matter does not necessarily make one smarter than another, but it definitely gives them more of an advantage when it comes to learning new materials and thoroughly understanding it.

Hedderman also explains that being multilingual actually helps with students’ native language as well. “If you learn about another language other than your own, it actually helps improve grammatical knowledge of your native language, ” he says.

Grammar is such a huge part of any language so any way to improve it is seen as a victory, definitely when it comes to core subjects. By understanding the basics of grammar in a second language, it can really help developing students who are learning the basics of their native language either in the classroom or at home.

This has been proven to be true with another bilingual student at North Allegheny Intermediate High School, who grew up speaking Spanish in addition to her English. “With Spanish, I have been able to learn new vocabulary better because some of the words in math or science come from Spanish origin or sound familiar to Spanish words.” Grammatical benefits may not be something that people originally think of when it comes to bilingualism advantages, but it is most definitely seen and believed among multilingual speakers.

Although researchers have found varying results on the actual cognitive benefits of bilingualism, they can all agree that bilingualism provides these students with a better cultural understanding. Hedderman states that,”The world that we live in is changing all the time, especially the connections that can be formed over social media, and understanding their culture is not only speaking their language, but language itself is a huge part of culture.” Understanding a culture and what they see as right and wrong can play a huge role in first impressions when first interacting with foreigners.

Does being bilingual actually help academic performances? The answer is it all depends on the individual student, but there is no way to hide the fact that bilingualism provides students with some degree of a cognitive advantage. Whether it’s in the classroom, or solidifying the basics of their mother tongue. Maybe it provides them with a deeper understanding of foreign cultures. Bilingualism, for people of all ages, in the classroom or walking downtown, most definitely has its pros and cons.

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About the Contributor
Kyle Byrne
Kyle Byrne, Staff Writer
Kyle is a sophomore at NAI and this is his first year on staff! He enjoys playing tennis outside of school and plays for the school team.

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