Little linguists: the importance of foreign languages

As the world becomes increasingly globalized, communication is vital to thrive and interact in a society replete with a myriad of cultures and diversity, but there is a barrier prohibiting effective communication: language. There are over 7,000 languages spoken around the globe and yet, the average American can only speak about 0.5 languages fluently–most adult Americans know only about 35,000 out of the 170,000 words in the dictionary.   

      While in Europe, children are required to learn a second (or third) language before the age of nine, in most of the U.S., foreign language classes are not offered until middle school–where even then, the classes remain optional. Unless children are raised in non-English speaking households, most do not learn a second language until high school and even then, most colleges and universities only require two years of a foreign language in order for students to apply.  However, by the time students reach high school, the ‘golden period’ for learning a language is lost, and children are more likely to never become fluent in a second language. 

          This ‘golden period’, or the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH), is the theory that there is a specific period during early childhood (which can start as early as three years old) when the human brain is most susceptible to adapting and creating neural connections. As a result, it is easier to learn a second language when younger because of the brain’s increased plasticity–which is essential for memorization, learning, and mental growth. However, since neural plasticity decreases with age, it becomes increasingly more challenging to learn a language fluently.

     In addition, the ability to learn a language may become laborious due to changes in priority. Most children become immersed in their studies, work, and other extracurricular activities as they grow older, leaving them with neither the opportunity nor the time to study a language as they did when they were younger. 

Yes, anyone can learn a language with dedication and practice; however, it is much more difficult for an adult to acquire the same level of grammar proficiency as a native speaker. When teenagers and adults try to learn a new language, they frequently struggle with grammar due to conflicting rules.

     But the benefits of learning a second language go beyond being able to speak to people from different countries. Much research has  proven that learning a second language at a young age can have a significant impact on a child’s development, learning, and cognitive abilities. According to researchers like Stephanie M. Carlson and Andrew N. Meltzoff, compared to monolingual children, bilingual children often have better problem-solving, critical thinking, and multitasking skills. This is because learning many languages requires more cognitive effort and engages different areas of the brain. Thus, exposing children to a second language early on can enhance their cognitive abilities, leading to better academic performance in areas such as reading, writing, and math. Bilingual children tend to be better multitaskers since their brains are used to processing multiple languages at once as well. It has also been found that children that are raised in bilingual households have better self-control and are more open-minded. Knowing multiple languages creates more and stronger neural connections and pathways in the brain, which in turn leads to better cognition. 

     Along with the intellectual advantages of being bilingual, children tend to have many more opportunities later in life. Speaking multiple languages can open the doors to new jobs, specifically jobs that require international communication and collaboration. Also, when it comes to traveling, adults that grow up speaking multiple languages have an easier time learning about new cultures and communities across the globe and are simply more connected to the world.

    We must acknowledge the significance of language and how it affects our ability to communicate and comprehend as a society. We can equip kids with the skills they need to flourish in a varied and connected society by investing in foreign language education at the elementary school level. In the end, the advantages of early language learning will not only assist children individually but also help to create a society that is more diverse and inclusive.