the bilingual advantage

The Science Behind our Full-Immersion Language Programs

Over the past several decades, it has become a well-studied, accepted scientific conclusion that children derive significant cognitive benefits from bilingualism. It's a phenomenon that is now so well reported on, it's been fondly dubbed the “Bilingual Advantage.” In a 2011 New York Times interview, cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok explained:

There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them...bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.

The New York Times interview came in the wake of a growing body of research. (For those parents seeking to dive more deeply into the issue, a 2008 Cambridge University Press article offers a useful survey. Another classic paper on the topic, widely cited, was written by James Cummins in 1981). In short, the conclusion reached by a number of researchers over the years is that mastery over switching between two languages transfers to other kinds of switching in thought more generally, leading to greater cognitive flexibility overall.

It's important that mastery — as opposed to more casual engagement and practice — is a key ingredient in this result. A certain threshold of fluency is required as a starting point. That's why our language program here at Guidepost focuses on full immersion for children, as opposed to a shallower exposure. If we are really serious about giving children the “bilingual advantage,” we have to be serious about getting them to the point where they speak naturally and fluently, and even think in a second language as well as they do in English.

For this reason, we provide a full immersion experience to children. We utilize an intensive, international recruiting and evaluation process to identify world class teachers and assistant teachers for our Spanish immersion program, who speak clear, high-quality Spanish with a native accent, in addition to meeting our otherwise rigorous hiring standards.

Montessori and Bilingualism

Montessori lends itself well to a language immersion program for a number of reasons. Most especially, the key delivery of knowledge in a Montessori classroom happens in a child-led manner, through exploration of hands on materials, offered to the child in a particular sequence. Because the Montessori materials speak for themselves, most of the learning taking place in the classroom doesn't rely heavily on language. So your child won't need to feel self-conscious about his degree of fluency, or be limited in any way while that fluency is still building. Children who are still in the process of acquiring Spanish don't experience stress or pressure: they are simply engaged with the materials, exploring, and their knowledge building skills at their own pace. Learning the target language simply happens naturally, almost unconsciously. It happens the same way any young child absorbs their native language: through constant exposure. The only difference is that in our classrooms, the “exposure” happens in a very deliberate, systematic fashion.

The kind of “cognitive flexibility” discussed in the scientific literature is only one aspect of the benefit, which has been studied and quantified. There are other benefits to dual-language fluency that are better described qualitatively, but that are just as valid, and perhaps even more significant.

First, there is the immense practical and spiritual benefit of having an entire realm of human culture unlocked. This Spanish language is spoken by billions of people, enabling a fluent speaker tremendous access into a world of incredible travel, valuable business associations, and deep personal relationships. And Spanish-speaking cultures have long histories, leading right up to the present, full of cultural and literary products which for the non-fluent are accessible only partially, indirectly, and through translation.

Second, there is a benefit to thinking. Learning two languages is similar to mastering multiple different ways of doing mathematics. If you know and understand more than one way of thinking about a problem mathematically, it ensures that math is never just a rigid set of rules that you're learning so you can do well in school. Your child instead develops a set of living mental tools that she can creatively deploy to approach ordinary problems mathematically.

Learning a second language is similar — but for all of thinking. All thought is clothed in language, and the value of learning a second language is that you strengthen your command of that very fact. Anyone who knows two languages well understands intuitively and deeply that language is a delightful, flexible tool. It allows us to make connections, understand evidence, and put precise, evocative words to all of human experience.

This is an incredible gift you can give to your child. But there's a narrow window for it! Early childhood is simply the best time of life to acquire genuine fluency in a second language. The benefits will remain with your child throughout the rest of her education and life.

This is why we believe so strongly in the value of language immersion here at Guidepost. We also believe that our full immersion Montessori programs are the best possible way to deliver this benefit to your child. If you have any questions, please talk to us! Meanwhile, we hope the handful of resources cited above will serve as a window into the world of research that exists on this topic, so that you can explore further for yourself.

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