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Should children learn a second language?

February 21, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
  • Elena Marqueto-Kelly teaches the advanced Spanish class for first- to third-graders at the Grupo Educa School. Bilingual parents have organized Sunday school at Blair East Elementary School in Pasadena to give their children more exposure to Spanish.
Elena Marqueto-Kelly teaches the advanced Spanish class for first- to… (Axel Koester / For The Times )

Does being bilingual help children learn to prioritize information, provide a defense against some effects of Alzheimer's or just provide a great workout for the brain?

All of the above, according to studies discussed Friday at the 2011 American Assn. for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington D.C., where a number of researchers presented on the benefits of being bilingual.

Among the findings: that infants raised in bilingual households can tell unfamiliar foreign languages apart and that bilingual speakers who rapidly switch between languages are better mental multitaskers than their monolingual counterparts.

Bilingual speakers rarely use the wrong language with a monolingual speaker. But knowing (and using) more than one language means that, if the listener knows both languages, speakers can switch between them to most accurately express their thoughts. This mental workout enhances what Pennsylvania State University psychology professor Judith Kroll, who spoke at the conference, called 'cognitive control.'

Learning to juggle two languages in the brain is a skill that probably deserves credit for bilinguals' cognitive advantages -- although, researchers stress, this doesn't mean they learn any better than people who only speak one language.  

While the science seems to be coming to a positive consensus on bilingualism, bilingual education continues to be a controversial issue in public education policy.

Think teaching children more than one language at a young age is good for young minds, or one that will get in the way of learning? Post your thoughts below.

Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.

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