Speaking in Second Tongues

There’s a lot I don’t remember about my school days, but one thing I recall with crystal clarity is that I did not like learning languages. My years of Hebrew school language lessons and high school Spanish classes were always a struggle, and my college’s lack of a language requirement was no small factor in my decision to enroll there.

Part of the problem may have been a counter-intuitive one: By the time I started trying to learn a second language, I knew my first one too well. “At a young age, you are able to hear sounds that are not in your native language,” says Sharon Huang, founder of Bilingual Buds, a pre-school Chinese and Spanish immersion program in Summit and NYC. “At around 6 months, babies begin to lose their ability to hear sounds that are not in their native language.” So at age 12, I was already deep into a language-learning deficit that had begun before I was even 12 months old. As we get older, it seems, we’re more likely to learn a second language by having a running translation of vocabulary, grammar and syntax going on in our heads the whole time. Young children, on the other hand, are still forging their initial connections of language to the world around them, so having more ways to describe the world isn’t going to be as big a leap.

During a visit to Vicky Chang’s Mandarin Chinese classroom at Nishuane Elementary school in Montclair, she and Dr. Janice Dowd explain the importance of learning more than just a second language. “We try to deliver our lesson based on a thematic unit. We don’t say Lesson #1 is color, Lesson #2 is body parts,” says Chang. “We introduce the culture, and within the culture we teach them to say the words. It’s related to social studies and language arts, even the yo-yo is related to phys ed. We are using Mandarin to reinforce their learning in science and math.”

The program she and Dr. Dowd are building is being funded by a FLAP (foreign language assistance program) grant that Dowd administers. “Its purpose it to improve the Chinese program in Montclair,” she says. “Part of the way we’re improving it is developing STEM units: Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. We’re preparing units to be taught in Chinese that reinforce STEM. The units will cover those areas so that kids don’t just study Chinese language, they study an area, and the means of doing it is Chinese. If a math concept isn’t totally solidified in the math class, when they come to Chinese class, it’s reinforced there.” Dowd is coordinating Montclair’s 5-year grant program with a team at Rutgers, and is looking to deliver curriculum-wide benefits through strategically designed language programs.

Many parents (including this one) may be intimidated by the idea of having to help with Mandarin homework, but Dr. Dowd points out that one of the best thing parents can do is reinforce school lessons by having the children teach them. “Just like we say it’s good for parents to read to children every day, the child can read to you. ‘This is what I learned today.’ They can teach you to count from 1-10,” she says.

The benefits of exposing children to a second language early and often go far beyond communication. “At a very young age, cognitively it really expands their thinking,” says Huang. “Studies show that children who learn that there are 2 different labels for the same item can think more flexibly and creatively.” And of course kids will have broader understanding of other cultures and their own, building a wider contextual framework for grasping how the world works.

“There’s the saying about ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,’” says Dr. Dowd. “I say, ‘Talk a minute in someone else’s mouth and you start to understand how other people think.’ You really understand the world around you, understand why people do the things they do, their traditions and culture. When we say ‘Think outside the box,’ learning another language takes you outside the box and broadens the mind.”

Are your kids learning other languages? Do you have tips for other parents who want to help their kids start speaking in second tongues? Have you seen benefits cross over to other subjects?

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  1. I’d like to see these studies: “At a very young age, cognitively it really expands their thinking,” says Huang. “Studies show that children who learn that there are 2 different labels for the same item can think more flexibly and creatively.”

    Also, what happens when 1) the student doesn’t have classes- use it or lose it, 2) has no outlet for using the language (except for maybe ordering food), and 3) the VAST majority of those speakers of another language in America are from Spanish speaking countries.

    So NO. I’d rather the little prof learn- as I’ve said a MILLION times here- MORE English, read MORE books in English, and become an even BETTER writer in English. And as someone who has taught College-level writing for 15+ years in both public and private schools (and a reader of the writers and commenters here) I can easily say, more English writing proficiently is MUCH needed.

    But that’s me.

  2. Prof, you might be falling into a small correlation/causation trap. The brain doesn’t work & learn in isolated boxes and straight lines, and there’s overlap to the benefits that different subjects & learning strategies confer. School systems that insist on multi-lingual education (ie, nearly any industrialized country but ours) also see better proficiency in the native tongue. Just like band or soccer teach cooperation more effectively than a civics class, it’s possible (and maybe likely) for kids to see upticks in English readin’ & writin’ when those lessons coexist with learning other languages, too.

  3. I recall a significant increase in my interest in proper English – most specifically, how grammar is structured – when I started learning German and Spanish in JHS (what is here called Middle School, I believe). Not being an educator, I’ve never been certain why this would be the case. But I’ve long suspected that part of the benefit came from seeing contrasts. It’s tough to understand something if it’s all you know. How can edge cases be understood if one never passes beyond the edge?

    In other words, I’m of the opinion that learning other languages helps one better understand one’s own. I can only imagine that the benefit increases as this experience occurs earlier.

    What I’d not suspected is that this experience has health benefits. Yet we’re apparently learning that this is the case. See articles such as:


    for additional insight in this area.


  4. Unfortunately, my father never taught me to speak Greek, but he was like the dad in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” always pointing out to me English words with Greek prefixes or suffixes. I learned that octo, which is 8 in Greek, was used in English words and made the connection that an octopus must have 8 arms when I was very small.

    So, while I am not fluent, just knowing some Greek, helped me make connections in my own native language.

    Just learning the 3 Rs, is not the most important part of being educated.

  5. Please. Any personal experience is just that: personal and doesn’t tell us anything.

    And why did you get better at grammar as you got older. That’s easy, you learned and read more. Perhaps the “contrasts” helped, but I bet it was having harder and more challenging classes/books/assignments. Most adults would agree that they are better writers as adults than when they were in high school.

    And the idea that a “Psychologist” has studied 450 folks and found that those who know a second language have a less occurrence of Alzheimer’s is a joke on it’s face.

    But still, is the prevention of Alzheimer’s the reason we should teach it? And if so, shouldn’t we mandate fluency? I bet, and this is just a bet, that those who know are bilingual are probably from Countries with lower rates of Alzheimer’s anyway.

    Finally, I would agree with you Georgette IF kids were learning the 3 R’s. They are not. So once they do, perhaps we can add to it. Until then, I’d prefer student contact hours to be devoted to those pursuits that matter.

    For most, knowing Chinese is NOT one of them.

  6. Oh, and Georgette, I completely disagree with you. The 3 R’s: Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic are the foundation for being educated.

    If not them, then what?

    Simply knowing 2 languages doesn’t make you educated. But if you can excel at the 3 R’s, you will be.

  7. “Oh, and Georgette, I completely disagree with you.”

    Well, we finally have something in common! I completely disagree with you on most things.

  8. Fine. But what of being educated? You said “[j]ust learning the 3 Rs, is not the most important part of being educated.”

    So I asked what is?

  9. Prof, why would you be opposed to any education that expands the mind. I do not think one is educated if one cannot understand music or art, is unable to make connections between varied subject matter, or to apply the three “r”s or any other knowledge in daily life.

    But the point of this article is different — whether or not you believe learning a second language is useful, it is certainly easier to learn a second language when you are still young. When we were introducing two languages in our bilingual home, I read many studies which suggested that a child internalizes all of the sounds in his or her language by age 6 months. The minds of young children are much more flexible in terms of learning concepts that are illogical or counter-intuitive. For an educator, you have a remarkably narrow view of education. And furthermore, anyone who writes the sentence: “I can easily say, more English writing proficiently is MUCH needed.” is, I hope, writing ironically. Otherwise, back to freshman english for you!

  10. Your idea of the “flexible” mind of youth is wrong. In fact, older folks have an easier time learning new things because they understand what and why they are learning it and how best to allocate functions needed. Ask yourself, how many teen Nobel Prize winners have there been? Most excel in their chosen field as adults, not kids. Because an experienced brain learns better. However for some (perhaps most) TIME is an issue, so learning a new language or piano is hard, not because it’s difficult, but because of the time needed to become proficient at it. Most do a cost/benefit analysis and decide to do something else. However, if an adult puts his or her mind to it, they can learn better than a kid.

    You did get the news that Baby Einstein was bull**it too, right? We cannot just “hear” something and believe it to be a “fact” forever. Like the “flexible” mind of youth. (An easy and fun primer is the Charlie Rose series on the Brain.)

    But to be clear, I don’t care if you learn a second language. My issue is that kids have a finite amount of time in school and we only have so much money for education, and for me learning a 2nd language is not worth the time. I’d rather they spend time on more English, Art, etc.

    However if parents want to pay for it, go ahead. Personally, I think- unless it’s Spanish, maybe- learning any other language (unless one has an interest or a family reason) is a waste of time. As I said, tell me where one might get to speak Chinese, French, etc. So with only about 25% of Americans have passports… Or maybe this might be easier for some to understand, NOT knowing a second language will not hold you back in America. And knowing a second language won’t get you any further (and please don’t tell me about the kid who got some job because she knew French, because I’ll point to a kid who got a job because he was a great writer.)

    But that’s me. Some here view any opinion other than the usual mantra- or anything that contradicts their own- as an assault on all things holy. I just see ’em as opinions. Nothing more.

  11. I wouldn’t call your “older minds” flexible, I’d call them experienced. They make use of all they have learned over a lifetime to make connections and draw conclusions — educated conclusions. As for young, flexible minds: if everything one encounters is new (as it is to a child) then the mind is open to all possibilities. As we age, we eliminate possibilities, based on our experience. That process necessarily renders us less flexible.

    If its just an opinion, why are you so vitriolic in your response? This is an interesting topic and worth a good discussion. Cheers!

  12. Three year old children who spend several hours per day around speakers of another language will learn that language whether they want to or not. Their minds are designed to learn language. Harnessing this innate skill only enhances their learning, self control, etc. Here is an excellent peer-reviewed study proving this: https://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/04/09/135239979/your-health-podcast-polyglots-and-painless-thoughts

    My kids and 700 others go to Shuang Wen, PS 184M in Manhattan. Students enter in pre-K or K. Children who start a dual-language curriculum early easily become completely fluent. My children and their classmates communicate in both English and Chinese, writing wonderful stories in both languages and easily moving between the two languages to converse.

    Neither I nor anyone in my family is Chinese. We do not supplement my kids’ Chinese academics in any way. I don’t understand why people are so hostile towards children learning two languages, even to the point of simply dismissing reams of independent research proving its benefits.

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