The United States is a country that houses many ethnicities and cultures within its borders. Census reports show that we’re becoming more diverse and multiracial in recent years, not less. It’s no wonder that there has been such a call to celebrate diversity, from the big screen to the classrooms and beyond.
No institution experiences this transformation more than public schools, which is why teaching bilingual language skills are more important than ever. Although English is the official language of the country, there are over 350-450 languages spoken within the United States. When students learn multiple languages, it can make them stronger communicators and more understanding of cultures outside of their own experience.
English Language Learners By the Numbers
As of the 2020 census, there are a reported 4.9 million children in US public schools learning the English language. This is a 25% increase over the past 20 years. There are a number of reasons for this boost in international migration. A boom of tech jobs over the past 20 years has certainly contributed to the numbers, as well as improved quality of life. Political conflicts and environmental factors can also lead families to relocate to the United States or seek asylum.
Many families in the US might speak a primary language other than English at home. The first-generation children of these families learn the English language at school. In fact, the census showed that in 43 different states, the percentage of ELL students increased over the past 20 years.
So what does this mean for the educators responsible for teaching the English language to these students? For one thing, a rise in ELL students calls for more need for bilingual teachers equipped to teach ELL courses. It also means that educators may need to adjust their curriculum to be more ELL friendly as the demographics continue to change.
And what about English-speaking students? Twenty years ago, the vast majority of American classrooms were comprised of students whose primary language was English. This has begun to change in recent years, which makes it all the more important to prioritize bilingualism in students. Language is the main way that we as people connect with one another, so while ELL students are learning English, it is also important for English-speaking students to learn Spanish and other languages.
6 Reasons For Early Bilingual Education
Learning foreign languages — especially Spanish or French — has been a part of high school curriculums for decades. But now more than ever, it’s important to start bilingual education sooner. If we want the next generation to be competently bilingual, it’s a good idea to begin to teach them in middle or even elementary school. Here are a few reasons why:
- More receptive minds. The truth is that as students age, their minds lose some of the plasticity they had when they were children. That’s why it becomes more difficult to retain information into adulthood. The younger the students are, the more plastic and receptive their minds will be to learning a new language. Some studies even show that children are most receptive to learning a new language even before school age — between the ages of 0 and 3.
- Greater cognitive flexibility. Research has shown that when students are taught multiple languages concurrently, it actually gives them greater cognitive flexibility. This cognitive flexibility allows students to be more adaptable to new environments and situations. It boosts memory and problem solving skills. This can give them a significant advantage when it comes to academic performance.
- Long-term brain health. Bilingual education won’t just help students through school. Studies show that it can strengthen cognitive health in the long run. Bilingual students remain more open to learning and retaining information for longer. It can even slow the aging process on the brain in later years.
- Removed language barriers. This is the main benefit of a bilingual generation. The more languages you know, the fewer barriers will stand between you and a dream career, international move, and relationships with others.
- Collaborative learning. With those barriers removed, bilingual English-speaking students are better able to communicate with ELL students. They can learn from each other when it comes to language learning, strengthening relationships, team building, and learning overall.
- Earlier proficiency. Language learning takes time. In particular, it takes about 5-7 years to become proficient in a language other than your first language. When students are taught foreign languages in high school, they often lose much of what they learn. But if they are taught in middle school or late elementary school and that education continues, they will be bilingual by the time they graduate high school.
Preparing Students For the Future
That the US is becoming more and more multicultural is inevitable. It is up to educators to make sure that students are truly prepared to enter this more diverse, multilingual society. The workforce has a stronger need for bilingual employees than ever before. In almost every customer-facing industry, the likelihood of having customers with a primary language other than English is rising, and workforces need employees who can meet that need.
But educators don’t just prepare students to one day join the workforce. They also prepare students to be good citizens of the world, empathetic and compassionate to those around them. Language is the way that we as people understand each other and connect with one another. A study from the University of Chicago showed that bilingual children, even if they’re not fluent in the second language, are more empathetic and stronger communicators. In the meantime, improved cognitive functions and academic performance will ensure that students breeze through school.