Research has argued for the advantages of bilingualism, from enhancing cognitive functioning to delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s Symptoms. A new study argues that bilingualism can play a role in counteracting the effects of poverty.
The study caught my ear because I teach languages — ancient Greek and Latin — to college students many of whose parents are recent immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and eastern European. Many of my students were themselves not born in the US — indeed, they have missed class because of needing to translate for a parent to a doctor, lawyer or government official — and more than a few are from lower income backgrounds.
Bilingualism and Poverty
Pascale Engel de Abreu of the University of Luxembourg and colleagues found that low-income children who are bilingual displayed cognitive strengths — better attention spans, enhanced memory — that are associated with bilingualism. Their research is to be published in Psychological Science; an unedited manuscript can be read via Education Week, which describes the study of 80 children, 2nd graders from lower-income families in Portugal and Luxembourg:
Half of them were first- or second-generation Portuguese immigrants to Luxembourg, who spoke both Luxembourgish and Portuguese. The other half lived in Northern Portugal and spoke only Portuguese. The study first tested vocabulary by asking the children to name items presented to them in pictures, with both groups answering in Portuguese and the immigrant children also answering in Luxembourgish.
Then the researchers tested how the students represented knowledge in memory by asking them to find a missing piece that would complete a specific geometric shape. They also measured their memory through various tasks and examined how they could direct and focus their attention when distractions were present. In one visual task, the children were shown a row of yellow fish on a computer screen and were asked to press a button to indicate which direction the fish in the center of the screen faced.
Bilingual students did not know as many vocabulary words as their peers who were monolingual but they were better able to focus, even with distractions.
Noting that all the children in the study are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, the researchers point out that “early adverse childhood experience can have detrimental effects on children’s cognitive development.” As their findings precisely suggests that bilingualism “might also provide protection against the adverse cognitive effects that are associated with poverty,” the researchers say that
… regular use of more than one language is a mentally stimulating activity that provides the opportunity to strengthen executive control mechanisms that build a defense to counteract the negative impact of poverty on cognition.
Engel de Abreu argues that stepped-up foreign language instruction could be an academic intervention for lower-income children who are struggling.
Learning Foreign Languages As An Academic Intervention
My own students, while are often very daunted to learn ancient Greek due to the different alphabet, find Latin not the easiest subject but manageable. Many are Latino/a and are fluent speaking Spanish, though not reading and writing it. In a couple of cases, students have told me of being placed in Spanish classes in high school in part because they already knew the language: One Latina student recalled a Bronx high school teacher telling students “just talk to each other in Spanish” during her language classes.
I suspect the language instruction Engel de Abreu and his colleagues are thinking of would be something more intense! Being able to know how to say a phrase in multiple languages, and very quickly, certainly requires mental flexibility and even dexterity.
Could foreign language study be a possible, truly beneficial academic intervention for children from lower-income backgrounds, with a view to enhancing their cognitive functioning as a sort of “buffer” against the effects of poverty?
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