Studies Suggest ELL Students are Destined to be Great Communicators

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Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, Ma-TESOL; M.S. SpEd

Teaching second language learners can often be a frustrating experience as teachers work to overcome language and cultural barriers between themselves and their students. However, bilingual and ESL students have been shown to have improved communicative ability as a direct result of their struggle with these barriers.

The University of Chicago recently worked with a group of 24 english speaking children, 24 children with regular exposure to second languages, and 24 fully bilingual children, in the hopes of identifying the impact of language learning on the ability to understand and communicate effectively.

There have been studies in the past that show bilingual speakers have improved cognitive function when it comes to language, and it has been determined that this may result from having to pay closer attention to context and intent from a speaker in order to determine the meaning. While this makes sense for fully bilingual students, the Chicago study is the first to show that there are also benefits simply from being exposed to a second language.

The three groups were asked to play a game with an adult where the adult would ask the child to move objects of varying sizes on a table. However, while the children were able to see all of the objects on the table, the adults had a divider that prevented them from observing many of the objects and allowed for situations that would test the students’ communicative ability.

Monolingual children were able to correctly identify objects around half the time, but bilingual children were able to correctly identify the object 77 percent of the time. Most interesting of all though is that children who had simply had regular exposure to second languages were able to match the bilingual children with a success rate of 76 percent.

Often times, teachers working with second language learners may find themselves assuming that an ESL learner is a less capable communicator than other students because of the language barrier, but studies like this help to show that the student might very well be an advanced communicator. It is up to ESL teachers to fill in the gaps in vocabulary and syntax and unlock student’s full potential.