Cognitive Effects of Early Bilingualism
The American educational system has fallen behind other leading nations in the world in many respects, one of which is in bilingual instruction. This has traditionally been overlooked in the United States until the high school level. Children in today’s society should be made more prepared for the growing globalism and technological advances throughout the world instead of losing educational opportunities due to economic downfall and lack of resources. This includes a second language acquisition introduced earlier in the program. On top of political reasons, the positive effects to the cognitive development of the brain when introduced to a second language are many. The age of acquisition is crucial due to the plasticity of the brain which, according to the critical period hypothesis, begins to plateau after five years of age. The current policy in early education limits greatly the amount of extracurricular lessons provided in accordance with government policies such as No Child Left Behind, which restricts school funding based on standardized testing only in certain subject areas. School programs, realistically beginning in elementary education, should include foreign language study due to the strong evidence that bilingualism in children can develop higher cognitive abilities which can be enhanced with proficiency and positively influence skills in other areas. Old arguments suggest that, “children who are instructed bilingually from an early age will suffer cognitive or intellectual retardation in comparison with their monolingually instructed counterparts” (Diaz 24). Much of the research from the past supporting this argument focused on older bilinguals, mostly adults who may have shown competent abilities in a second language but who had much later ages of acquisition and who usually acquired the second language outside of the home. Many early studies in this field worked with children of immigrants who showed lower abilities in cognitive tasks most likely because of the lack of proficiency in the second language (L2) and lack of proper schooling in relation to this deficiency (Kovács 307). In correlation with poorly chosen test subjects, the studies were typically done with orthographic representations of words that would have been more difficult for younger test subjects to work with. For example, a study done by Ton Dijkstra, Professor of Psycholinguistics and Multilingualism at the Donders Institute, which focused only on adult English/Dutch bilinguals--the youngest being fifteen years old, all of whom studied their L2 in a middle or high school level. This study included only written examples of words and had the subjects determine if the word was English or Dutch. The results were able to somewhat prove Dijkstra’s theory of Bilingual interactive activation (BIA) which underlines the effects orthography has on L1 and L2 word retrieval that is “assuming, of course, that the same orthography is used in the input” (Dijkstra 217). If this study were done on younger children, it is sure they would not have performed as well since children are typically less familiar with the written language than with the spoken. Older language learners would make more use of the written approach to learning, such as a textbook, while younger learners typically learn more from a speech-based approach, like conversationally in the home. The textbook approach is a symbolic processing which differs from the more embedded cognitive retrieval of the speech-based learning approach utilized by younger children to understand the two languages. There have been many studies over the past few years that have proven the opposite of these older arguments. Many of the studies have tested the cognitive abilities of young children, usually aged six and under in accordance with the critical period hypothesis, with both monolingual and bilingual proficiency. These experiments are concerned with cognitive tasks...
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