Are you getting your bilingual child ready for elementary school? Here are some ways that speaking two or more languages primes a child's brain to be receptive and ready to learn at school.

Outdated advice warned parents that learning more than one language at a time could be a disadvantage for their child because it would slow language development. However, recent research on brain functioning shows that kids from bilingual families actually have a unique advantage as students, due to the healthy workout that their brain has performed in acquiring two languages. Developing fluency in one or more language is an activity that can really be a benefit to a child as a student.

A Brain That is Ready to Learn

The brain tends to work like a quick search engine to interpret language. It deciphers language by guessing what each word will be as it hears the speaker say each syllable of a conversation. When a child can speak two languages or more, their mind works double-time to guess words, with choices from multiple languages. This process exercises the side of the brain that is used for coding and deciphering, which primes it for when they use these skills at school and throughout their lives.

Focusing on Follow Through

The part of the brain that is used to process language is also involved in executive functioning skills. These skills are essential for school success and include staying focused, following through to complete tasks, and easily transitioning from one activity to another. Amanda Martinka, an elementary school teacher from Washington, says that when children translate words from one language to another, they apply skills similar to the ones used when solving a math problem. Both processes involve sorting information, maintaining the different pieces and then applying them. These key elements build a receptive learner, and are critical skills that teachers try to encourage in their students.

Building Knowledge They Can Use

Some parents may shy away from sharing books in their native language with their children because they are concerned that it will divide their attention and take away from learning a second language. Martinka says that reading books, singing songs and working on letters and sounds, teaches the concepts of literacy, no matter the language in which it is taught. Mika, mom of two, teaches her preschool-age children the alphabet in Japanese and songs and stories in both languages. Being fluent in more than one language also teaches kids to use multiple viewpoints. Steven Nishida, owner of English Masters Communication Center, says that these skills are extremely helpful for a child's communication and problem solving skills. Children who are used to using words from multiple languages may be less likely to give up when they get stuck because they are used to employing multiple approaches to understand a problem or communicate an idea.

Music to Their Ears

Learning a language also uses the same part of the brain that processes music. Liz Plunkett, an elementary music specialist says, "Music is a language and notes are symbols that are interpreted, like words. Music and language makes a child's mind work at both a sight and hearing level." Reading music and identifying pitch and tone are skills enhanced by the brain's activity on language development first. Children who are raised interpreting and understanding two or more languages will find that learning about music feels like a familiar process.

Roots and Wings

Taking your child to festivals, and celebrating one's heritage and religious holidays with them is a way to share language and culture, acquire knowledge and build a bilingual learner with a strong personal and cultural identity. The benefits to feeling connected to family, culture and identity are an important part of becoming a confident student. In Martinka's class, she sees that kids who feel connected to their family and culture have confidence for learning and confidence to verbally participate in class. When your child shares traditions and celebrations with the teacher and the class, the child becomes more engaged. Participating in class instead of being a silent learner gives a child a sense of self and helps them to see that they have an important voice.

Different families have different approaches to bilingualism, and that diversity is part of what builds a unique and proficient learner. Every child is unique, but studies support that learning more than one language can create an open mind that is ready to acquire more knowledge and lifelong skills. These primed abilities and engaged brains build a confident kid, and a student who may become an observant scientist, a unique artist, a detail-oriented programmer or a parent who passes down a legacy of cultural identity and language to generations of confident, engaged kids!


Ruth Hanley is the parent of two girls and she feels that parents are the most influential teachers for their children, which is both an honor and a delight.