Although bilingualism has long been thought to hinder the mind’s thinking process, research for the last twenty years or so has given us a much bigger and detailed picture.
The Center for Applied Linguistics reports that young bilinguals’ minds develop differently. Bilinguals’ brains keep both languages on tap constantly, which at times can create internal conflicts (leading earlier researchers to incorrectly conclude that mental development is slowed by this conflict), and strengthens the brain’s cognitive functions. Learning or thinking as a bilingual is like running with a 50 pound backpack, you’re going to get stronger much faster than someone who is just running.
Psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee and researcher Albert Costa have concluded that the primary difference between monolinguals and bilinguals is “a heightened ability to monitor the environment.” In one study, two psychologists found that bilingual children were able to respond more efficiently to changing instructions to organize colored shapes into different categories than monolingual children.
The same cognitive strengths that enable children to perform tasks help adolescents to excel in standardized tests. College Board reported that there is a positive correlation between SAT scores and knowing a second language. Bilingual students also tend to improve their test scores from year to year with continued study. Studies show, too, that greater fluency in both languages promotes stronger cognitive functions. In one controlled study, researchers found that “when verbal ability is controlled, students who study foreign language for longer periods of time will do better on various SAT sub-tests...than students who have studied less foreign language.” An analysis of the ACT (American College Test) shows that “high school students who studied a foreign language consistently scored higher on ACT English and mathematics components that did student who did not study a foreign language in high school.”
SAT tests are a big deal. They are so important, in fact, that many high caliber universities disregard GPA and rely on standardized tests to make admission decisions. Controversy surrounds standardized tests, as affluent students are more likely to have access to expensive test prep materials, tutors, and honors classes, etc., but the fact still remains: colleges screen applicants with SAT scores.
Based on this research, one clear way to help English language learners, a population of approximately 4.5 million and growing rapidly, to excel as learners in high school and college is to promote fluency in their native language and English. If ELLs understand that bilingualism is a major advantage that will serve them in higher education, they will be more motivated to stay and succeed in school.