While possessing proficiency in one language is enough for communication purposes, having multiple language abilities has more advantages. In an increasingly globalised world, the ability to effectively communicate in at least two languages is very beneficial. Educators and policy makers have acknowledged that a country can attain many benefits when students are bilingual.
This has led to the prevalence in the number of schools offering foreign language studies to students. While it is understood that students benefit greatly when they are bilingual, there is lack of consensus on the best time to introduce them to new languages. This paper will argue that the establishment of bilingualism in kindergartens is imperative in setting the foundation for bilingualism in Australia.
Merits of Early Exposure to Foreign Languages
Early exposure to a foreign language takes advantage of the fact that children have a higher aptitude for language acquisition than adults. During the formative years, a child is more receptive to information on languages. He/she is able to easily develop relationships between sounds, spelling, accents, grammar and vocabulary.
Gillam (2010) agrees that young children present a special case since they are still learning their native language, which means that they have not yet formed rigid rules concerning the syntax of a particular language. Teaching two languages at the kindergarten level effectively exploits the natural abilities of the children (Dixon 2012). The children are able to master the languages with ease and continue to use them during their adult years, therefore greatly benefiting the nation.
Learning two languages at an early age promotes brain development. This higher development is caused by the greater utilisation of the brain’s frontal lobe as the child learns two languages possessing different syntaxes and grammar rules. According to Pena and Gillam (2011), the switching between two languages confers developmental advantages related to advanced inhibitory control skills. In addition to this, children acquire higher cognitive and problem solving abilities due to bilingualism.
Carlson and Meltzoff (2008) declare that multilingual children demonstrate “superior performance on spatial problems and in non-linguistic tests of creativity and geometric design” (p.282). They demonstrate increased mental flexibility and creativity due to exposure to two languages at an early age.
|Early Learning||Adult & Immersion Learning|
|Quick language proficiency||Slow Language proficiency|
|Brain is still developing leading to higher sensitivity to new language||Brain is fully developed leading to lower sensitivity to new language|
|Higher tolerance for language ambiguity||Low tolerance for ambiguity due to social norms|
|Complete competence acquired in second language||Only partial competence acquired in second language|
Fig. 1: Early Learning vs. Adult & Immersion learning
Benefits of Bilingual Kindergartens
Children benefit from improved reading skills when they are introduced to two languages at an early age. Studies indicate that bilingualism facilitates the acquisition of language-related skills such as reading and writing in children (Keenjal 2008). The reason for this is that bilingualism facilitates sensitivity to sound leading to enhanced phonological awareness.
This makes the children more prepared than their monolingual counterparts for learning to read. In addition to this, children are able to transfer skills learnt from one language to the other. Keenjal (2008) admits that when learning two languages, it is possible to transfer the reading skills between the individual languages.
Children in bilingual kindergartens gain some practical benefits from the program. To begin with, education assists in enhancing the social development of students from an early age. Wen-Jui (2012) confirms that there is a positive relationship between bilingual fluency and socio-emotional well-being of individuals.
By learning two languages, kindergarten students acquire confidence and self assurance (Dixon 2012). These attributes contribute to better performance not only in the school setting but also in the community setting. The bilingual children are generally regarded as being more sociable than their monolingual counterparts.
Success of Bilingual Kindergartens
The success of bilingual kindergartens is evident from the considerable growth of these schools across Australia in recent years. Due to their popularity and significance, the government has increased its funding to the schools. Hajek and Slaughter (2014) observe that due to the high demand for bilingualism, the government made a commitment that all Victorian government schools would provide language programs starting from kindergarten by 2025.
Bilingual kindergartens are very popular with children whose parents come from foreign countries such as diplomats and expatriate workers. These children join the kindergartens with the aim of gaining proficiency in their first languages, as well as English. There are also Australia parents who desire to have their children acquire another language from an early age. Such parents have contributed to the growth of bilingual kindergartens in the country.
Problems and Solutions
A major problem with bilingualism in kindergartens is that it leads to a lack of mastery in either of the languages. As a result of attempting to learn two languages simultaneously, children end up performing poorly in both of them when compared to their monolingual counterparts.
This weakness is caused by lower vocabulary acquisition since languages influence each other. Carlson and Meltzoff (2008) confirm that bilingual children typically have a smaller vocabulary in each language taken individually compared to monolingual speaker of the same age. Kindergarten teachers and the parents of the children can help overcome this setback. By being aware of the negative impact that language mix can have, teachers can guide the children to avoid making the common mistakes.
Another problem is that bilingualism might result in language development delay. Pena and Gillam (2011) define language delay as the situation where children fail to attain in-depth experience with either of the languages they speak. Bilingual students are at risk of this since their input is comes from two languages. As a result, they receive less input from each language they are learning. In addition to this, bilingual children have less practice using each language compared to monolingual children.
While bilingual students may show lower performance in standardised language tests compared to monolingual children, this does not mean that they are at risk of language impairment. Pena and Gillam (2011) explain that lower performance is to be expected since their language experience and knowledge are distributed between two languages. The children are able to gain equal language proficiency with monolingual children within a few years.
This paper was set out to show the importance of focusing on kindergarten children in a bid to promote bilingualism in the country. It began by discussing the importance of acquiring multiple language skills in the modern world. The paper then highlighted the various advantages of early exposure to a second language. Children have a greater aptitude for learning new languages and the process promotes brain development.
The paper noted the benefits of bilingualism, which include improved reading skills and enhanced social development. However, the paper noted that there are some problems associated with bilingual kindergartens. They include lower language proficiency and language delay.
These problems can be overcome by having teachers and parents provide more guidance to the children as they learn the two languages. Considering the numerous advantages of early exposure to a second language, policy makers should work towards making bilingual kindergartens universal in the country.
Carlson, S. M. & Meltzoff, A. N. 2008, ‘Bilingual experience and executive functioning in young children’, Developmental Science, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 282-298.
Dixon, Q. 2012, ‘Profiles in Bilingualism: Factors Influencing Kindergartners Language Proficiency’, Early Childhood Educ J, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 25-34.
Gillam, R. 2010, Communication Sciences and Disorders: From Science to Clinical Practice, Jones & Bartlett Learning, NY.
Hajek, J. & Slaughter, Y. 2014, Challenging the Monolingual Mindset, Multilingual Matters, Canberra.
Keenjal, P. 2008, Bridging the Gap: Home-school Partnerships in Kindergarten, Walden University Press, Tennessee.
Pena, E. & Gillam, R. 2011, ‘Risk for Poor Performance on a Language Screening Measure for Bilingual Preschoolers and Kindergarteners’, American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, Vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 302-314.
Wen-Jui, H. 2012, ‘Bilingualism and Academic Achievement’, Child Development, vol. 83, no. 1, pp. 300-321.