Some of the benefits of bilingual education can also be explained by exploring how Spanish-speaking students immersed in English language studies only struggle:
• Cognitive Ability
In a nutshell, this involves brain activity and flexibility at it relates to mathematics, problem solving, logic and memory. Unprepared Latino students in English-only classes can experience stunted cognitive ability growth.
“Solving math problems is a great example of one way to employ your flexibility thinking skills because you have to think about different ways you might solve a problem, in the same way if you’re growing up in a bilingual household you need to think of different words,” Lytle said. “And if you can’t activate a word in one language, you need to think of a different way to describe the word.”
Through his studies, Cornish said students from communities where Spanish is valued possess a positive self-image of themselves as Spanish speakers and the Spanish communities they come from. Conversely, the opposite is true in school districts ignoring bilingual education and Hispanic heritage.
“When I work with individuals who come from communities where Spanish is seen as a less prestigious language and not really valued, this can cause social issues,” Cornish said. “A student who still has a lot of needs to communicate in Spanish may prefer to be perceived as an English speaker and communicate only in English without having all of their education needs met.”
• Educational Advancement
Cornish said there is conflicting research regarding how long it takes a child to acquire another language.
The general idea most people accept is a child becomes proficient socially and can communicate like other children in formal situations in about three to five years. So how does this relate to bilingual education?
“Academic language takes five to seven years to develop,” Cornish said. “There are some questions whether it takes much longer for a child to catch up with the academic English and the complex language they need in the classroom. So why that’s important is during this time when they are not communicating language at the same level as their monolingual peers, there’s a potential for them to be missing out on curriculum, and especially with Common Core standards that are coming out where all of our children will be judged uniformly. Spanish speaking students aren’t going to have the same access if all the instruction is in English.”
While immigrant or first generation parents want their children to assimilate, Cornish said he’s seeing more families where children are dropping their home language.
“I’ve had tearful conversations with parents who are saying, ‘I’m losing the ability to communicate with my child, what do I do?’” Cornish said. “That’s kind of a hard thing to address. There are a lot of social pressures involved in that that none of us can really control.”
A recent University of Kentucky College of Medicine study has researchers believing more reserve brainpower, enhanced by being bilingual from an early age, helps protect against memory losses caused by Alzheimer’s and dementia.