How to make more money? Grow up bilingual, researchers say

Kids who are proficient in both English and a second language – called 'balanced bilinguals' – are more likely to graduate high school, go to college, and hold better jobs, according to a new study.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Fourth graders choose one book in English and one in Spanish from the school library. The International Charter School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island is one of two K-5 public schools in RI to offer bilingual education. Bilingual classes are taught either in Spanish or Portuguese and English.

Children who grow up speaking both English and another language at home are likely to earn thousands more than those who only speak English, according to a new study.

These individuals who weren’t able to retain a language other than English spoken at home make about $2,000 to $5,000 less every year than those who know both languages, said the report, issued by the Education Testing Service and the University of California Los Angeles.

The benefits of bilingualism start long before a person enters the job market. Kids who are similarly proficient in both English and a second language – called “balanced bilinguals” – are also more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, and hold better jobs, researchers said.

Oftentimes, these students come from immigrant backgrounds, said UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, the department that worked on the project. 

And thanks to their language abilities, these children often also have “wider social networks offering more resources and support,” according to the report. “[Thus] we argue that the urgency to divest immigrant youth of their parents’ native language, often intimated in public debates, may cause more harm than benefit in the long run.”

“This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century,” writes The New York Times. “Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.”

No longer. Since then, several studies comparing bilingual and monolingual individuals have found that “the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function – a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems, and performing various other mentally demanding tasks,” reports the Times.

Immigrant parents who worry about their children acclimating often grapple with the decision to teach their kids their native language. “I’m asked about this all the time,” said Ellen Bialystok, the cognitive neuroscientist who spent almost 40 years researching what’s now called “the bilingual advantage,” in an interview with the newspaper.

“I always say, ‘You’re sitting on a potential gift,’” she said.

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