Communicative competence: Just one early benefit of bilingualism.

bilingual benefitsLast week, we flipped the dialogue a bit, framing monolingual students as linguistically lacking. We don’t believe in such deficit views of any kind of student, but wanted to be mindful about the words and tone we use when we talk about bilingual students.

It was great timing, then, to stumble across this article from the National Journal, which totally edifies bilingual school children and frames them as resource-holding, talented assets. It even cites Nelson Flores, the Educational Linguist who inspired last week’s post. The article offers a few illustrations of how fluidly bilingual children can think. They have no angst about their names being pronounced differently from one language to another, and depending on the language you use to ask, “What do you want to do when you’re done with school?” a student might respond “Help my dad,” (meaning that afternoon) or “Become a lawyer” (meaning someday).

Indeed, research is only beginning to scratch the surface of how speaking two languages can affect flexibility, ambiguity tolerance, and communicative competence. We’ve talked about it before, but one new study had children with various exposure to a second language (ranging from monolingual to bilingual) play a gridded board game in which objects weren’t always visible from the adult’s side. Every child first played from the adult’s side so they were aware of this, but only bilingual students applied their knowledge and adapted their communication in ways that were helpful to the adults, describing pieces as big, medium, or small, according to what the adult saw, rather than what they saw. Putting oneself in another’s shoes is a very complex, intellectually advanced skill that requires a fair degree of compassion and selflessness. It takes a number of years for children to develop to this point, yet bilingual children could do it at a younger age and more adeptly, than monolinguals in this task.

Of course, key to maximizing all the wonderful things about bilingualism is enthusiastically supporting our students’ dual identities, and making sure that support comes across to parents. Historically, immigrant parents have tried to minimize their outsiderness as they strive to acculturate in the US, but a sense of shame or cultural abandonment is precisely the opposite of what students need to become well-rounded, confident individuals. Parents may or may not teach native language literacy or maintain cultural practices in the home, but if they wish to, teachers should be prepared to offer tips and ideas. We’ve talked about ways to boost parent involvement here, here, and here, so take a look to get the juices flowing.

How have you seen bilingualism at work among your students?

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