Bilingualism As A Tool To Fight Poverty

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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Renata Zelazna
Renata Zelazna6 years ago

This article lies. I speak five languages and still live below the poverty line. It's crisis and there are too many graduates for the small number of jobs available - all thanks to the mechanisation of work and the online translators...

Sarah Hill
Sarah H6 years ago

Why do people who come to this country expect us to learn their language instead of learning ours? Immigrants used to do that as soon as they got here, they were proud to do it. I spent 3 years living in Germany as a teen, the first thing the Army made us do as a family was to learn German so we could communicate with them and not expect them to learn English for us.

Virginia Peng
Virginia Peng6 years ago

I must say I see no reason to think that bilingualism does anything to help poverty. This is very much overly simplified. It is simply one means to stimulate the mind to learn! We have no idea what type of education is being conducted in the Portuguese schools or the Luxembourg schools. The lessons in one school might be encouraging memorization more than in the other! I would need to look more closely at the study. However, to get out of poverty, I think learning many subjects in school are really needed.

As a bilingual myself, I do not see in anyway that "being" bilingual has in any way helped me to not be in poverty. Being bilingual has given me options to choose in which country I can work and in what type of work I can engage. My Japanese language ability is certainly not equivalent to my English ability, but I am rather proficient in both. But I will tell you, it was my parents who helped me to be bilingual. The elementary school's classes in which I attended were not helpful. It is my father who made the decision to hire a tutor to help me improve my language skills. Anyway I have chosen to use my English in Japan. I have an average livelihood.

On the other hand, a friend of my friend who is also a bilingual Japanese/English speaker is in a very different situation. He is financially in a very difficult situation. I believe he tried to use his bilingualism in Japan. Proficiency in Japanese was one problem that he had. Thus, his "bilingualism" has not helped him

Cvi Solt
Cvi Solt6 years ago

There is an interesting choice to learn another language. Esperanto is relatively easy to learn, is very logical and can help you learning another language. You can learn it much faster than other languages.

Sharon H.
Sharon H6 years ago

I've been to several different countries and Americans are so damned arrogant as to expect the NATIVES to speak English to us instead of us trying to learn their language....and guess what? Most of them DO speak English! How many hillbilly hicks here are SO proud to speak nothing but "American." People from other countries laugh at us...I've seen it. We are the most ignorant, arrogant bunch of miscreants on the planet. When I was 5 years old, I spoke fluent Italian because my Italian grandfather spoke it to me and I spoke it back. Children are sponges who can learn anything if they're given the opportunity. Rich people send their kids to those countries to learn their languages but there are so many courses out there that make learning a language relatively easy and you come across as more intelligent if you can speak another language. Isn't that we want for our country? To make out children more intelligent and be able to keep up with other progressive countries? Oh, the rich don't want that but we as regular citizens should DEMAND our children get the best education and it should include a foreign language, science, math, and the arts like music and actual art...drawing, painting, etc. This produces a well rounded education and not a bunch of little uneducated religious robots.
Sorry for the rant...but this got under my skin...

Wesley Struebing
Wesley S6 years ago

Phil A - they do already. it's called immersion, and it is why so many immigrants' kids are at least bi-lingual.

Besides, as has been pointed out several times in this chain of replies, learning a second ()or third, etc.) language is GOOD for you and for your brain - and who knows, possibly even your social skills.

Ian Fletcher
Ian Fletcher6 years ago

Once you start learning languages, you can't stop!
I work as a translator for various companies in Europe, I read, write and speak 10 languages (none very well...) and i want to learn more. It's fascinating to discover new worlds as the language "puzzles" start to fit and you see the "picture".
It becomes easier and easier to learn, the more languages you speak.

Kristina Chew
Kristina Chew6 years ago

@Morgan M, That's great you're studying both of those languages! I would much like to learn Russian. You're inspiring me to start.

Morgan McDowell
Morgan McDowell6 years ago

I am learning two languages, Russian and Spanish. It’s great for my brain and my knowledge, because I can look at patterns that are either different or similar to the two languages, and I compare them to English of course.

Moira P.
Moira P6 years ago

Interesting post. Thanks. I speak several languages and am a firm believer in the value of learning about other cultures and that includes being able to communicate to people in their own language. The better one is able to communicate the better one's chances of survival.