Benefits of Bilingual Education for Kids

Parent dressed for Día de los Muertos event
ENL Parent Dia de los Muertos event, Photo provided by Dr. Teresa Satterfield

Approximately 12 million American school kids are bilingual, constituting nearly 21% of the primary school population. Known as a melting pot, modern-day America is home to a diverse network of over 200 languages.

Bilingual education in America has seen its share of shifts over the past half-century. Until 1923, it was illegal to teach foreign languages to early learners, a policy that was overturned after the Meyer v. Nebraska Supreme Court case. There was a surge in bilingual speakers in the 1960s, leading to the passage of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which funded bilingual programs at the federal level. However, by the 1990s, schools trended toward English-only instruction.

Today, bilingual education remains controversial among some groups, with a common question being whether exposing a child to two languages can be confusing.

Does bilingualism cause delays?

Although most would agree that speaking two languages offers several benefits for youngsters, including accelerated cognitive development, social-emotional development, learning and long-term success, some claim there is a flip side: bilingual learners are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or developmental language disorder.

One research study published in ASHA examined whether Spanish-English bilingual children are over/under diagnosed with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). The results indicated that although bilinguals are 28% more likely to receive special education services, this may be because educators expect them to be equally proficient in both languages.

Group photo
Kovelman Lab, Photo from

Benefits of bilingualism

Still, the overarching research is resounding: bilingualism does not cause delays. Rather, it offers a cognitive advantage, even protecting against dementia or Alzheimer’s. Numerous researchers, teachers and parents support this notion. In fact, learning two or more languages facilitates cognitive flexibility, creativity, problem solving skills and emotional intelligence.

Code switching requires the brain to quickly shift from one language to another, requiring adaptability. In one study, bilingual children were found to be skilled at categorizing and solving mental puzzles. Moreover, bilinguals often have the luxury of having multiple words to label an object or concept. This allows them to understand the nuances of language within several contexts. Bilinguals can fully embrace their dual-ethnic backgrounds and forge strong connections in both cultures.

In the lab
Kovelman Research Participant, Photo from

University of Michigan Language & Literacy Lab

Questions surrounding bilingualism and its impact on speech, reading and learning disabilities have fascinated Dr. Ioulia Kovelman, Ph.D., for years. The Language & Literacy Lab at the University of Michigan currently examines the cross section of literacy, dyslexia and bilingualism.

Kovelman’s current projects explore the influence of cross-linguistic factors on bilingual kids’ language and reading development, focusing on English, Chinese and Spanish speakers. Among many parallel research studies, she compares the fNIRS brain images of bilingual and monolingual children. Kovelman refutes the prevalent criticism of bilingual kiddos being at a greater risk for learning delays.

She believes that “a child who knows more languages can interface with more cultures and understand more about the world… have more perspectives…”

Families interested in learning more about research study participation can email or call 734-615-6413.

Group of kids learning with their hands
ENL Geometry and Friendship Quilt, Photo provided by Dr. Teresa Satterfield

El Neustra Lengua Literacy & Culture Project (ENL)

Kovelman collaborates with Dr. Teresa Satterfield, linguist, U-M professor and director of a bilingual Spanish-English school, El Nuestra Lengua School (ENL) in Ann Arbor. Founded in 2010, ENL is a unique tuition-free Saturday Spanish immersion and community outreach program.

Currently, there are approximately 250 students ages 4-10 and teen book club participants. Dr. Satterfield’s hope for ENL is for it to uplift American-born Spanish speakers so that they are proud of their heritage. A unique facet of the program is its project-focused curriculum. Each term, students study different subjects, from earth science to Mayan history, in Spanish. Regular workshops and informational sessions encourage active parent advocacy and participation.

RELATED: May Delosh Brings Chinese to Ann Arbor Preschoolers

Kids and parents looking over results
Kovelman Lab, Photo from

How Parents can support bilingual kids

Parents may wonder how to best support their bilingual children at home. Satterfield suggests that it is important for caregivers to model speaking the native language, focusing on articulation and clarity.

It is also essential to expose children to many forms of media in the language (books, movies, music, etc.), and connect with native speakers in a home country via videoconference or phone, if possible. Tell stories. Sing songs. Make the language come alive. Children are primed to grasp language during their earliest years, and are likely to gain native-level fluency if exposed by age 10. Parents can also enroll their kiddo in a formal heritage language program. In Michigan, there are many languages to choose from, including: Chinese, German, Hindi, Polish and Ukrainian.

Indeed, with globalization, speaking a second language will become even more widespread in the US. Bilingualism is truly a gift.

As Charlemagne stated, “To have another language is to possess a second soul”. It opens doors and validates one’s own cultural identity. Families can equip their children with the tools to navigate our multi-national society through bilingual education.