Learning a second language shouldn't be foreign to elementary students, research by new Northcentral University PhD finds

"Foreign-language fluency is important in everyone's life, especially in this ever-more-global society. Knowing another language is always going to provide more opportunity."
— Dr. Jennifer Thomson

If the U.S. public education system wants to catch up academically with the rest of the industrialized world, it would start teaching foreign languages in elementary school, a new study by a Northcentral University PhD has found.

Dr. Jennifer Thomson's research adds to a growing body of evidence that students who are proficient in a second language are consistently higher academic achievers in every subject.

Her dissertation — The Relationship Between Student Achievement and Multilingualism: A Quantitative Causal-Comparative Study — was cited by Northcentral University faculty and deans as one of the three best studies conducted by 2011 PhD graduates.

The study not only gives scientific support to Dr. Thomson's hypothesis that being multilingual has a direct correlation with success in school, the data indicate strongly that training in a second language should begin in elementary school.

Most foreign-language training in U.S. public schools begins in high school. The role of language as a medium of instruction in promoting effective teaching and learning is an issue that has occupied many scholars all over the world for many years, and will likely continue for some time to come, she said.

Her research concludes this shouldn’t be the case, noting that several state legislatures in the United States and Canada have passed requirements for foreign-language study based on research showing its ripple effect on student success rates in other school subjects.   

Dr. Thomson's research addresses a nationwide public education problem in the United States: Student performance in basic math and reading skills trails behind other developed countries. Her data show that multilingualism enhances cognitive, neuro-linguistic and meta-linguistic development.

Her study randomly selected 1,000 students from similar socio-economic backgrounds from 69 schools throughout the European region of the American overseas school system. Half spoke more than one language; half didn't. The mean math and reading scores of multilingual students were respectively 4.3 and 2.3 points higher than the scores of monolingual students.

The findings also strongly indicate that foreign-language students significantly outperform their non-foreign-language counterparts on most academic achievement tests.

Dr. Thomson, who is fluent in Japanese and German, said her own working experience shows adult Students who are proficient or at least have some foreign-language training also tend to be more successful, both in pursuing an advanced degree and in their careers.

"Foreign-language fluency is important in everyone's life," she said, "especially in this ever-more-global society. Knowing another language is always going to provide more opportunity."

Dr. Thomson was a Dissertation of the Year award winner at the June 2011 Northcentral University commencement. She earned her PhD in Education specializing in Educational Leadership.