By Dr. Kurlat Ares & Sra. Kijak

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Nelson Mandela

Parents have to make a lot of academic decisions about their children’s education, sometimes for them, sometimes with them. Learning a second or a third language is one of those decisions that often veer from the school’s immediate academic present into a child’s future, which parents can see but are unsure about, and which the child cannot even imagine.Studies have shown that learning another language improves the learner’s attitude towards cultural difference and understanding, and that this ability is later applied to all kinds of social and cultural interactions. But there are other benefits that, not surprisingly, intensify when children add more languages to their repertoire.

According to a 2011 University of Haifa study by Prof. Abu-Rabia and Prof. Sanitsky, learning a variety of languages not only improves proficiency in the speaker’s native language but also increases cognitive function. The study shows that trilingual education in highly structured environments shows the greatest benefits for the developing brain. Learning a variety of languages improves proficiency in a person’s native language, in visual perception, and in the brain’s ability to make connections.

Why does the brain benefit from learning languages? Because learning a second and a third language improves cognitive abilities, memory skills, and problem-solving abilities. Because it helps with multitasking and prioritizing. Because learning languages is a major factor in the delayed onset of age-related illness such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Still trying to decide if children might benefit from learning multiple languages while in school? Research has also shown that there is a correlation between improved academic performance and learning foreign languages. Learning languages improves reading abilities and linguistic awareness. And it improves the ability to formulate scientific hypotheses or to pose solutions to science problems.

When making decisions regarding how and when to choose a third language (as Hebrew is a second language for many of our students), some information can be very helpful. Typically, conversations regarding a third language as an academic option center on the concrete and tangible, but you might also want to think about life after school.

Spanish, spoken in more than 21 countries, is the third most spoken language in the world. As the population of the United States is rapidly changing, Spanish is becoming the country’s de facto second language. By 2015, 18% of the U.S. population spoke Spanish and the number is projected to continually increase over the next 40 years. According to the Cervantes Institute, as of 2016, the U.S. has the highest number of Spanish speakers in the world. Hence, Spanish is a useful tool for everything from future jobs and study abroad to everyday use. Since 2000, more than 40% of U.S. students have enrolled in foreign language courses, both at the high school and college levels. Of these, 55% are taking Spanish.

Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world and the tenth most studied language in the U.S. Classified as a “language critical to U.S. national security,” studying Arabic provides access to a number of scholarships and fellowships at the higher education level for those interested in pursuing these studies, and later on, it opens doors to exciting job opportunities. Arabic provides critical language skills and cultural understanding in over 20 countries, including Israel, where almost 20% of the population speaks Arabic.

The CESJDS World Languages Department offers Spanish and Arabic. The Spanish Program currently starts in 6th and 7th grades, and again in the 9th grade, and goes up to 12th grade. The Arabic program starts in 9th grade and finishes in 12th grade.

Learning languages is fun. It builds self-confidence and self-actualization. Our students always come back from their summer vacations with stories about how they used their language skills in all sort of situations, from the intern who helped translate for doctors and patients in a hospital, to the child who was able to translate for her parents in a coffee shop during a summer trip. More importantly, a language is a gift for life.

Dr. Silvia Kurlat Ares, World Languages Department Chair, and Deby Kijak teach Spanish at the CESJDS Upper School.

This article was originally posted on the Charles E Smith Jewish Day School Blog.