Why should I encourage my child to learn a new language?
There are a multitude of reasons to encourage your child to learn a new language — enabling communication with more people, fostering knowledge of other cultures, and broadening eventual career pathways, just to name a few.
In this post, we’ll take a look at three of the less obvious reasons to get your kiddo on the road to being bilingual:
1. Linguistic benefits.
Clearly, becoming bilingual leads to knowing a second language better, but it may also help you to know your first language better. For example, children acquiring a second language from a young age show an advantage in language and literacy skills over those acquiring just one language, and studying a foreign language for longer is linked to higher scores on standardized tests in the native language. The German writer Goethe once said, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own,” a pithy statement alluding to an explanation for these effects: learning an additional language facilitates awareness of the structural aspects of language and how they fit together, which feeds back positively to the learner’s native language.
2. Cognitive benefits.
Besides additional language knowledge, becoming bilingual is also linked to advantages that go beyond language. Bilingual children routinely outperform monolingual children in their ability to focus attention and switch between different tasks. Furthermore, a lifetime of bilingualism, as a consequence of the “mental exercise” of navigating two language systems, seems to lessen or counteract normal cognitive decline in old age.,
3. Social benefits.
Knowing and using a second language is associated with greater empathy—in particular, a better ability to consider the perspective of other people in communication. For instance, children raised with more than one language in their environment are better than monolingual children at incorporating information from context, including the viewpoint of another person, to accurately interpret the sentences they hear. This type of effect follows naturally from the day-to-day experience of bilingualism, which provides plenty of practice with keeping track of socially relevant information such as the languages known by different people and the situations in which each language may be used appropriately.
In short, a variety of scientific findings suggest that starting your child on a new language may reap some serious benefits, both within and beyond the domain of language! Future research promises to uncover even more ways in which learning a second language can play a positive role across the lifespan.
Dr. Charles Chang is a linguist who studies the processing, representation, and development of speech sounds in the context of multilingualism and language contact. His research is concerned with the cognitive organization of multiple phonological systems, especially the cross-language interactions that occur during second-language learning and first-language attrition. He's an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Boston University and the Linguistic Advisor for TA-DA!
 “Age of first bilingual language exposure as a new window into bilingual reading development” (Kovelman, Baker, & Petitto, 2008).
 “The cognitive benefits of being bilingual” (Marian & Shook, 2012).
 “The bilingual advantage” (The New York Times, May 30, 2011).
 “Why bilinguals are smarter” (The New York Times, March 17, 2012).
 “The superior social skills of bilinguals” (The New York Times, March 11, 2016).