When I was younger, I was obsessed with learning Spanish and sign language. The former was because I loved the way it sounded in music and wanted to understand the words. The latter was because it was easy for me to understand and I loved being able to communicate with people with hearing difficulties. While I don’t remember as much as I did at the time, what I was doing–unbeknownst to me–was giving myself an advantage that would benefit me for many years to come. Below I share my experience as well as benefits to promoting this in the classroom and beyond.
As a college student, I traveled to a South American country on an education immersion/service trip. I was able to use some Spanish to communicate things to the locals there, showing respect and honoring the culture. It was also easier to blend in and experience life from the perspective of a native as much as possible. Knowing some Spanish helped make that experience much more memorable, and I also began appreciating more the struggle people go through to learn how to read, speak, write, and listen in another language. As a teacher for a government program, I was able to use my ability to learn and use sign language to communicate with the custodian who cleaned our classroom. This made getting help with cleaning needs easier, which was a problem in the past. I credit part of my academic, career, and personal success in part to the ability to adapt and change with the flow, a skill gained while learning a different language.
How can this impact kids? When students learn new languages, it has many benefits that transcend the ability to speak more than one language. They may be able to switch tasks and concentrate better, show empathy and understanding multiple perspectives, and are less likely to get age-related memory loss1. For those in dual-immersion classes–a method where students receive content instruction in two languages (e.g. English and Japanese) without explicitly teaching the target language to be learned–, the benefit is greater, as it’s been shown to improve reading abilities as well when compared to those learning in traditional classroom settings2. Knowing multiple languages is definitely a 21st-century skill needed to prepare our children for the future, helping to make them productive, relatable citizens that seek to connect with those within and outside their circle of influence.