- Second-language immersion programs can appeal to parents as easy ways to enrich their young child's education.
- Some young children enjoy language immersion and enjoy acquiring the benefits of having another language.
- Young kids who are conceptually advanced and intellectually curious can be frustrated and bored in immersion.
I was talking to a friend about plans for her pre-schooler. Their home language is English, but my friend’s father is French, and I wondered if she was enrolling her child in the local French immersion kindergarten.
She surprised me by saying that her dad advised against doing that. He said, “You have a very bright little girl who’s curious about everything. French is only one subject. You don’t want to make it the center of her education for the important early years of school.”
Yes, there are many benefits of speaking more than one language, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea to enroll your kindergartener in an immersion program.
What Does Research Find About Language Immersion Programs?
If you look up “second language learning,” you’ll see a whole lot about the advantages of being bilingual, mostly written to advertise language schools and apps. If you dig deeper, you’ll have trouble finding solid research about the advantages of second or third language learning, other than in older age, where it does have strong cognitive benefits.
You’ll have even more trouble finding material validating early language immersion programs. One meta-analysis published by the British Academy concluded that there are benefits of learning new languages in older adulthood, but that “the relationship between executive function skills and language learning success is complex and inconsistent.” What's more, “the cognitive relationship between language learning and age of exposure is dependent on a multitude of varying factors, and is not as clear as initially predicted.”
My clinical experience with kids is consistent with my friend’s father’s observation (“French is only one subject”) and with the British Academy’s findings that second language learning can be great for kids, but isn’t always, and it depends on a whole lot of complex factors.
For some young children, French or other language immersion classes can make school more interesting than it would otherwise be, enriching their lives and enlarging their sense of the world and its possibilities. Children who enter school already strong in their first language and mathematical skills can enjoy learning in another language, finding new ways of understanding and thinking about what they already know.
For others, language immersion programs can be curiosity-crushing. I’ve worked with too many very smart young kids who are deeply frustrated at school because their scientific, technological, or mathematical interests far outstrip their ability to discuss their enthusiasm in the new language. The conceptual level of instruction is necessarily constricted until they and their classmates are up to speed in the new language, which won’t be until the child is well into the elementary school years. In the meantime, the child has been bored and miserable at school.
For a child with advanced reasoning and conceptual skills, early language immersion programs can deaden their interest in school, which can have far-reaching negative consequences. This is especially true for children who aren’t much interested in acquiring a new language. And because girls tend to be more engaged than boys in language learning in the early years, young gifted boys seem to have more trouble than similarly gifted girls in adapting to second language learning programs.
Alternatives to Language Immersion Programs
Yes, it’s great to speak more than one language, but there are many alternatives to enrolling your young child in a second or third-language immersion program. Some schools offer a delayed part-time immersion program that starts in middle school, where one or more subjects are taught in the second language.
You might also look for extracurricular learning options. Perhaps your child can choose to take other languages as school subjects when they get a bit older.
When looking for a school for your preschooler, consider their individual learning needs, strengths, and challenges, and look for what you think might be the best match. If your child happens to find learning easy, is already doing well with early reading and arithmetic skills, and takes pleasure in language learning, a second or third-language immersion program beginning in kindergarten might be just right. If, on the other hand, your child is curious about science or math or geography, and more interested in critical reasoning and conceptual learning than in the specifics of language like spelling, grammar, and word derivation, they might do better in the early years with learning in their home language.
Language immersion programs may seem like a great way to enrich your child's education, and they are if there's a good match between your child's interests and the program. For too many capable kids, however, they're frustrating dampeners on curiosity and the love of learning.
“Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning: Broadening our perspectives,” by Bencie Woll and Li Wei