Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language

There are many academic benefits of studying or learning a foreign language for students and children – some obvious, some not so obvious.

One study has shown that children who have studied a foreign language in elementary school tend to perform better on standardized tests than those who have not.

Another study suggests that students who are taking a foreign language class outperform academically students who are not taking a foreign language – and the list goes on.

Below we’ll explore how research shows learning a foreign language supports academic achievement and provides cognitive benefits to students.

Language learning leads to higher standardized test scores.

Various studies suggest there is a strong correlation between learning a foreign language and achievement on standardized tests. In one study, a random selection of 3rd-graders received a 30-minute Spanish lesson three times a week for an entire semester.

Spanish lessons were conducted entirely in Spanish and focused on verbal skills development. Students who participated in the Spanish program the entire semester scored notably higher on the Metropolitan Achievement Test (MAT) in language skills and mathematics than students who did not participate in the Spanish program. (Armstrong, P. W., & Rogers, J. D. 1997. Basic skills revisited)

A similar study that focused on the verbal achievement of middle school students who studied a foreign language yielded similar results. Middle school students who studied a foreign language performed significantly better in language mechanics and reading comprehension on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills than a group of control students who participated in the Challenge Reading program. (Carr, C.G. 1994. The effect of middle school foreign language study on verbal achievement as measured by three subtests of the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills [Abstract])

Language learning is beneficial to bilingual and two-way immersion programs.

A study conducted by Cohen, A. D. via the Culver CitySpanish immersion program showed that after two years of bilingual education, students who spoke English as their first language were able to acquire competency in speaking, reading and writing Spanish, while maintaining the same level of proficiency in English and mathematics, as students enrolled in English-only academic programs.

A study that examined the achievement scores of elementary level English as a Second Language (ESL) learners enrolled in a two-way immersion (TWI) program, and a Structured English Immersion (SEI) program, at the end of their third year of study achieved at-or-above grade level in both English and Spanish. (Pagan, C. R. 2005. English learners’ academic achievement in a two-way versus a structured English immersion program [Abstract])

Language learning improves students’ reading abilities.

The results of numerous studies show a strong positive correlation between the study of a foreign language and improvement in reading fluency and comprehension. A study conducted by A. D’Angiulli and E. Serra in 2001 (The development of reading in English and Italian in bilingual children) suggested that adolescent bilinguals score higher on word-reading and spelling tasks than skilled monolingual readers of the same age group.

The results of a similar study showed that sixth-grade students who studied a foreign language in school scored higher on reading achievement tests than six-grade students who had not studied a foreign language. (A study of the effect of Latin instruction on English reading skills of sixth grade students in the public schools of the district of Columbia, school year, 1970-71.)

Language learning improves students ability to learn other languages.

Not surprisingly, students who are able to learn one foreign language find it significantly easier to learn another foreign language. One study, conducted by T.H. Cunningham and C.R. Graham in 2000, showed that students who participated in a Spanish immersion program experienced improvement not only in Spanish vocabulary but also in their native English vocabulary.

Middle school students in the Spanish immersion significantly outperformed English monolinguals on a Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT). It seems that learning a foreign language also yields improvements in students’ native language.

Learning a second language increases linguistic awareness.

A study sponsored by E. Demont in 2001 demonstrated that children who are immersed in a bilingual environment have an enhanced ability to manipulate morpho-syntactic structure. That is, these children are able to interpret and comprehend written language with greater ease than monolinguistic children and are better at grammatical judgment and word recognition.

Studing a foreign language may improve performance on SAT and ACT Tests.

Several studies indicate there is a positive correlation between the length of time high school students take a foreign language and high SAT verbal scores. High school students who had taken at least one year of a foreign language showed a statistically significant increase in scores on the verbal Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and California Achievement Test (CAT) relative to students who did not complete a year of foreign language study. (Cooper, T. C. (1987). Foreign language study and SAT-verbal scores. Modern Language Journal, 71(4), 381-387.)

Another study by P.A. Eddy in 1981 supported a similar conclusion, that students who study a foreign language for an extended period of time will outperform students who have not studied a foreign language on various SAT sub-tests and the verbal section of the SAT.

Students who learn a foreign language in high school perform better academically in college.

A study conducted in 1985 by P.D. Wiley (Classical Outlook, 62(2), 33-36. from ERIC database.) suggested there is a strong correlation between extended study of a foreign language (French, Latin, German or Spanish) in high school and improved academic performance in college relative to students of equal academic ability who have not studied a foreign language.

Early language learning may improve cognitive abilities

In various cognitive skills tests performed by K.M. Foster and C.K. Reeves in 1989, elementary age students who studied a foreign language for an extended period of time scored significantly higher on evaluation tasks than their counterparts who had not studied a foreign language. Students who studied French the longest performed the best on cognitive skills tests. (Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) improves cognitive skills. FLES News, 2(3), 4.).

Learning a second language may improve cognitive development and abilities.

A study performed by S. Ben-Zeev in 1977 demonstrated that bilingual children may be required to develop coping strategies that accelerate cognitive development. The study showed that although bilinguals had a lower vocabulary level, that with respect to verbal material and perceptual distinctions they demonstrated advanced processing ability. They also demonstrated a higher capacity for organization of perceptions in response to feedback and the ability to find structure in perceptual situations.

Several other studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between proficiency in a foreign language and cognitive perceptual performance.

Learning a second language may improve memory skills.

Not surprisingly, there appears to be a positive correlation between bilingualism and memory improvement. A study conducted by R. Kormi-Nouri, L. Nilsson and S. Moniri in 2003 demonstrated that bilingualism may contribute to improved episodic memory and semantic memory among children at all age levels.

Learning a second language may improve problem solving abilities.

Bilingualism may also contribute to improved social problem solving among children. A study of 84 Hispanic children from homes where the predominant language was Spanish showed that bilingual children had a greater ability to solve social problems than their monolingual counterparts. (Stephens, Mary Ann Advisor: Esquivel, Giselle B. (1997). Bilingualism, creativity, and social problem-solving. (PhD, Fordham University).)

Learning a second language may improve verbal skills.

One of the biggest benefits of learning a foreign language appears to be in the development of verbal skills. Several studies show that bilingualism supports – even enhances – the development of verbal abilities among students of all age groups.

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