Across the country, more and more schools are implementing dual-language programs, in which students attend an equal number of classes in English and in another language, such as Spanish, Portuguese or Mandarin. Half of the school districts in Utah — by far the most progressive state when it comes to bilingual education — offer dual-language immersion, to great success. This school year, New York City is expanding its own language-immersion programs to 40 additional schools, which means the Big Apple now has about 150 bilingual public schools.
“There’s a huge interest,” says Emmanuel Saint Martin, a French native and founder of the Bilingual Fair in New York City. “Sometimes it comes from parents wanting their children to connect with their heritage, but there are also many American families who want to get their kids ready for a globalized world.”
“It’s a big contrast to 50 years ago, when the first thing an immigrant family wanted to do was to forget their language,” he adds. “People still want to be assimilated, still want to speak English, but now they want their kids to keep their heritage, too. It’s seen as an advantage.”
We talked with Saint Martin about the benefits of going to a dual-language school.
It’s good for the brain
Researchers at the York University in Toronto have found that bilingual children have greater cognitive flexibility, meaning they can process a greater amount of information than their peers. “Because their brain is used to switching from one language to another, they’re able to multitask better,” says Saint Martin. “They know how to ignore the information or knowledge in their head that they don’t need and make the right choice at the right moment.” (Studies have shown this helps with mathematics, as well as with social interactions.)
It's good for one's health
All that brainpower has an even more significant effect, too. “It is said that being bilingual can help prevent dementia,” says Saint Martin. And, indeed, a 2010 study of 211 Alzheimer’s patients found that those who spoke two or more languages fluently staved off the disease longer than those who didn’t.
It's good for one's career
You may think that everyone in the world speaks English. Wrong. And with the economy getting increasingly globalized, employers are looking for workers who can travel and converse with international clients and partners. “The fact that you are able to communicate with much more people means that you’ll be able to find better jobs — and better-paid jobs,” Saint Martin says.
It encourages open-mindedness
Learning multiple languages — and studying with peers who come from different cultures — makes students more well-rounded, more inquisitive, more tolerant and more curious about the world. Which is increasingly important in an increasingly open, global and connected society. “Bilingual kids are more open to the world and open to others,” says Saint Martin. “And that’s very advantageous nowadays.”
The Bilingual Fair takes place Saturday, Oct. 3, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. at Hunter College (68th Street and Lexington Avenue).