Want To Change How Kids See The World? Teach Them A Second Language

For children, bilingualsm is much more than simply being able to speak in a different language.

photo via (cc) flickr user CTG/SF

As a child in a dual-language elementary school, my teachers liked to explain that learning another language would enable me to meet more people, have conversations in new places, and generally be a better citizen of the world. And while my bilingual skills have gone woefully underused since my grade-school graduation, I am thankful for being exposed to a second language, if only for the fact that it’s given me an added “skills” line on my resume, and the ability to – every once in a while – randomly surprise some of the kiosk workers at my local mall. But, as it turns out, my learning a second language at a young age may, in fact, have affected me more profoundly than I, or anyone else for that matter, previously knew.

According to a new study out of Canada’s Concordia University: “[C]ertain bilingual kids are more likely to understand that it’s what one learns, rather than what one is born with, that makes up a person’s psychological attributes.”

Most children, it seems, are “essentialists” who believe that people’s characteristics are innate properties they’re born with. It’s a line of thinking that, when it appears in adults, can lend itself to the endorsement of prejudices and stereotypes. Children taught a second language at a young age, on the other hand, are more open to the possibility that traits which their monolingual peers might see as innate are, instead, learned.

In the study, 48 elementary school aged children – some monolingual, some bilingual, and some sequentially bilingual (that is, learned two languages one after another) – were presented with scenarios in which babies born to one set of parents were then adopted by parents speaking a different language, and in which ducks were raised by a family of dogs. They were then asked what language the adopted babies would speak, and whether the ducks would bark, or quack.

The monolingual subjects of the study displayed the predicted outcome of innate essentialism. But the study’s architect, psychology professor Krista Byers-Heinlein, was surprised to find that:

Sequential bilinguals did, in fact, show reduced essentialist beliefs about language — they knew that a baby raised by Italians would speak Italian. But they were also significantly more likely to believe that an animal’s physical traits and vocalizations are learned through experience — that a duck raised by dogs would bark and run rather than quack and fly.

Which is to say that neither group was “correct,” (sorry, but a duck raised by dogs is never going to bark and run, no matter how much we all might really want it) but that each makes their own discrete type of mistakes. Still, Professor Byers-Heinlein’s discovery could help shape the way we think about developmental education, and perhaps inspire us to raise a bilingual generation open to diversity and difference, beginning at childhood.


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