sounds meaning. Then they must decide how to respond. These decisions
need to happen quickly. Exercising these skills over and over makes the
Here is an example showing how bilingualism plays out in an early
childhood classroom: Five-year-old Marysol enters the kindergarten
classroom. She is talking to her dad in Spanish. Her teacher comes over
and greets her in English. Marysol smiles and says, “Hey! I am saying
good-bye to my dad in Spanish, and hello to you in English!” Then she
skips away to join her friends at the puzzle table. This is a normal situa-
tion for her, but she understands what she’s doing. She can distinguish
her two languages, and she thinks that’s cool. Marysol is so aware
because her family and her teacher talk directly with her about learning
If bilingual people use both languages regularly, their brains get a lot
of exercise. This exercise improves problem solving, phonological aware-
ness, and metalinguistic awareness (Genesee 2007). Metalinguistic
awareness is the ability to think about language as a process.
Bilingualism also has sociocultural benefits (DeBruin-Parecki and
Timion 1999). It can improve understanding of cultures and the similari-
ties and differences among and between cultures.
Language is a communication tool specific to the culture of a group.
A culture has the words it needs for everyday life. Its vocabulary reflects
the local geography, climate, foods, and behaviors. For example, it snows
a lot in northern Scandinavia. The Sami people who live there have
hundreds of different words to describe all the variations of snow they
encounter. Another example: European cultures generally dictate that
people address one another differently depending on familiarity and
social status. So most European languages have formal and informal ver-
sions of the word you. A French adult, for instance, says “tu” to a child or
close friend and “vous” to an elder or acquaintance.
Children learn the nuances of language through listening, observing,
and experimenting. When bilingual children have repeated experiences
in both languages, they improve not only their language skills but also
their understanding of the behaviors that go with the languages. They
develop keen awareness of cultural cues.
Finally, bilingualism offers economic advantages. Immigrants who
speak and write English fluently have access to better jobs in the United
States (Minnesota Literacy Council, accessed 2012). English is the