Benefits of a Bilingual Education

The pressures of today’s world are intense, even for young students, and parents are always looking for a way for their children to get a leg up on their classmates. Already, the students matriculating in Shanghai have an edge over their peers in their home countries as children who experience their formative years abroad are able to adapt to new situations more easily, and are often more responsible and mature. These so-called “Third Culture Kids” encounter different cultural values daily, helping them develop a broader worldview and a more cosmopolitan outlook on life, both of which are crucial skills in today’s increasingly globalised world. Perhaps the most important benefit children can achieve by living abroad is becoming fluent in a second language.

The numerous cognitive and linguistic benefits of bilingualism are well-known by Dr Claudio Toppelberg, an associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who also serves as Project Director for the Child Language & Developmental Psychiatry Research Lab at Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston. He notes that bilingual learners often train students to develop a range of skills.

“These skills give bilinguals insight into the abstract features of language and into other people’s mind and their own learning processes,” he says. “They also appear to give bilingual speakers an enhanced capacity to appropriately control and distribute their capacity to pay attention, to develop abstract and symbolic representations, and to solve problems.”

Studies have shown that the optimal time to start a bilingual, or multilingual, education is during a child’s preschool and primary school years. According to Sean Brotherson, a Family Science Specialist at North Dakota State University, “The ‘prime time’ for language development and learning to talk is from birth to 10 years of age” when the brain is most malleable. Even during that time period, studies have shown that the earlier learning begins, the better. Dr Toppelberg half-jokes that bilingual education should ideally start as early as “the delivery room”.

Infants are able to absorb new words and sounds, no matter what variety of language is making the sound because the development of the cortex (the part of the brain that is responsible for language) is a blank slate. After age three, the child’s ability to emulate the native pronunciation of words and sounds declines. Once a child reaches age 10, it becomes progressively harder to learn new words as the brain cortex becomes dominated by a single language, and trains itself to block out sounds that are foreign from the speaker’s mother tongue.

While getting an early start on a bilingual education is important, that shouldn’t discourage parents from encouraging their older children to study a second (or third) language. Dr Toppelberg says, “A good capacity to learn continues, of course, later in life. But this capacity is more constrained, at least in what regards to accent, so that it is less common (but not unheard of) for teenagers and for adults to acquire a native accent.”

As Andrew Mellor, co-principal of Yew Chung International School (YCIS) Shanghai Puxi Kindergarten and Primary School, notes, “It’s never too late.” Even for older students, a structured class with a skilled teacher can simplify the immersion process.

“Many students could not speak any Chinese before they came to YCIS, but after studying Chinese in our school, they can carry on conversations with local people,” say Mellor. “Now, they help their parents communicate with local people when going shopping, having dinner at a restaurant and taking taxis.”

The bilingual curriculum for YCIS begins an Early Child Education curriculum that teaches activities in both English and Chinese for simultaneous bilingual learning. Older students follow the National Curriculum of England, which is adapted to fit YCIS’ internationally-minded campus. Western and Chinese co-teachers educate students in the core subjects, and students are required to take an hour of Chinese language lessons daily and a Chinese Culture class weekly.

Another option for Shanghai parents interested in a bilingual education is Shanghai United International School. They offer a fully bilingual education using the International Primary Curriculum and the focus is on attaining fluency during primary school. According to Dr Roger Morgan, co-principal at SUIS Pudong, “The school's curriculum is taught by two teachers in each classroom to ensure fluency in both languages by the age of 11 when decisions are made by pupils and parents are made about teaching languages for middle and secondary education.”

How Parents Can Support a Bilingual Education

- Begin bilingual education as early in the language development process as possible.

- Expose your child to as many native speakers as possible. Hiring an ayi or qualified Chinese tutor to help with the immersion into Mandarin is helpful. Try to learn the second language yourself so you can support your child in their learning.

- Create opportunities for children to use the secondary language. Simple everyday activities, like shopping, travelling, interacting with the ayi and ordering food, can become useful practice for bilingual students.

- Give your children a variety of interactive learning tools. Books and educational videos are fantastic tools, but also offer them games and toys that will grab their attention while simultaneously immersing them in the culture. Joining cooking classes or painting lessons taught by a native speaker are great interactive ways to interest your child.

- Organise a playgroup with children who are native Chinese speakers to help immerse your child in the language of his or her international peers.


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