The world has gotten smaller and ever more connected, making it not just desirable to speak more than one language, but necessary – especially for expat children.
Europeans have long been praised for their ability to speak more than one language. Over half of Europeans in a survey from the European Commission said they speak at least one other language aside from their mother tongues. But even though only half speak more than one language, the majority – 98 percent, in fact – believe mastering foreign languages is useful for the future of their children.
Expatica explains the benefits of raising bilingual children and how it can help shape their future.
Language learning in the Netherlands
Schools in the Netherlands are required to teach children Dutch and English, the latter of which must be part of the curriculum by age 10. However, many schools are beginning to introduce the language earlier: in the Netherlands, just over 52 percent of children learn English in the primary level of education – ages five to seven.
While learning a foreign language certainly makes it easier to live in a globalised world, there are far more benefits of bilingualism in children than just being able to communicate.
Social benefits of bilingualism
Many parents want their children to be multilingual so that they can better communicate with those from other countries, and improve their job prospects in the future. For expat parents, it’s often desirable so that the children can better integrate into society, allowing them to thrive in a new environment.
Promotes effective communication
Learning more than one language can actually influence children’s aptitude in communicating effectively, with one study demonstrating that bilingual children were better at interpreting intent. A group of children ages four to six were shown three toy cars, comprising a small, medium and large car; the adult, however, could only see the medium and large cars. After noting that they could see a small car, the adult asked the children to move it. Bilingual children better understood that the adult could not see the smallest car, and subsequently moved the medium-sized car even though, to them, it was not the smallest.
This type of experiment has been repeated, and consistently shows that children who speak more than one language are simply better at interpreting and analysing their surroundings. According to one of the researchers from the study, Katherine Kinzler, it makes sense. Children in multilingual environments – expat children, for example – are exposed to far more situations in which they must analyse their environments and choose which language to speak.
More cultural awareness
Raising children in a foreign country and ensuring they learn the language not only helps them understand the cultural differences between their home country and their new country, it can allow them to better appreciate cultures around the world. In one particular study, those who often used multiple languages showed higher levels of cognitive empathy, or the ability to understand another’s emotions.
Benefits of bilingualism on the brain
Research has shown that bilingual children are better at focusing on important information and ignoring the unimportant, a skill improved by switching back and forth between languages – leading to an improved ability in juggling multiple tasks.
While dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are not common concerns among parents of young children, recent research that delved into the long-standing claim that bilingualism delays the onset of dementia showed that “lifelong bilingualism”
– in which the person uses more than one language frequently – may protect against these neurodegenerative diseases; in contrast, those who learn a second language later in life are unlikely to see any benefit.
Preparing them for the future
In a globalised world, bilingualism – and better yet, multilingualism – is a huge benefit. International companies are giving preference to those who can speak multiple languages, and those multilingual employees often earn more. As the world becomes more connected, there will be an increase in the number of jobs that demand bilingualism, making it ever more competitive.
Expat children benefit across the board when learning an additional language, and not just because they can communicate with their peers – learning multiple languages improves brain health and enriches lives.