The Lifelong Benefits of Early Bilingual Education

Preschoolers learn a new language quickly in a bilingual immersion classroom. Learn how German International School Chicago makes this happen and why it matters.

We’ve all witnessed — or even experienced — a verbal conversation that begins in one language and ends in another, flowing effortlessly and leaving everyone with a deeper understanding. Used by those who are bilingual or have experienced a bilingual education, this skill is a type of code-switching and engages the brain in complex ways, offering what researchers call a “bilingual advantage” that extends beyond language to other brain processes.

Photo credit: German International School Chicago

Bilingual education has lifelong benefits for children, especially if they start early, says Nathalie Kohlhaas, Head of Preschool at German International School Chicago (GISC), a non-profit International Baccalaureate (IB) World School for children in preschool through eighth grade.

“When children code-switch, their brain is actively using one language while processing the other language,” Kohlhaas explains. “It’s really powerful because it means their brain is always working and they can switch quickly when needed. People used to believe that learning two languages was confusing for children, but modern brain science underscores the tremendous advantages of bilingual education.”

Early bilingual education is highly effective

While children can learn a second language at any stage, the optimal time to start is in preschool. “Research clearly indicates that both environmental and biological factors show that early childhood is the best time,” Kohlhaas says. The older a child gets, the more difficult it is for their brain to acquire another language. And, the way young children learn best — through songs, rhymes and games — provides a natural way to learn the language and become fluent.

At GISC, students engage in language immersion, learning most subjects in German — the most widely spoken first language in the European Union. Beginning at the kindergarten level, students take a daily English Language Arts class. In the upper grades, students also receive math and STEAM instruction — aligned with U.S. Common Core standards — in English to make the transition to American high schools easier.

GISC’s bilingual immersion approach, says Kohlhaas, results in students who speak two languages fluently, and who may be more competent in English than their monolingual peers. On U.S. state-required standardized tests, third grade students at GISC consistently score above the 90th percentile in grammar, she says. GISC eighth grade students rank in the top quintile on standardized tests, and some have already tested into the high school of their choice.

Even if a child begins to learn a new language later than the preschool years, the Become Bilingual Program at GISC offers specialized small group and individual instruction right in the classroom for children up to second grade. In GISC’s new Fast Track German Program, students in third through sixth grade with no knowledge of German are also supported individually and with additional instruction to help integrate them into classes taught in German.

Cultural growth

The value of bilingual education at GISC extends far beyond language learning to include cultural competency, which is so beneficial to future professionals in a global economy.

“Every country has certain idiomatic expressions and idiosyncrasies and qualities that pertain to the culture of that language, so the language itself becomes an enhancing tool to understand culture and how people think through that language filter,” says Kohlhaas. She describes the use of maps for reference points and how even the youngest children can see that a move from Germany to Chicago means crossing an ocean and the many experiences such a move involves.

“It’s so much more than speaking German. It’s also science, geography, and more, and through all these talking points, children become aware of the world,” she says. “We see that light going on in our children. We foster the joy in all the cultures our students are part of.” GISC families represent up to 40 different nationalities.

Strong academics

As an IB World School, GISC offers the rigorous IB Primary Years Programme, and middle school students benefit from small class sizes that allow individualized learning. GISC also has a collaborative relationship with a nearby high school, which some students attend to continue their bilingual German education, even adding additional language learning and IB instruction —gaining the opportunity to attend university in a tuition-free country such as Germany by earning the IB Diploma, Kohlhaas says.

This lifelong learning begins very early, and preschool students thrive in the student-centered, project-based learning environment – often centered around the STEAM subjects – at GISC.

“We are very nurturing and enjoy working with our students and meeting their needs and educational development,” Kohlhaas says. “We have joy and a passion for this profession and our students really love coming to school. We see that they are so open to trying new things and group activities and are never shy to speak in front of a group.”

In some cases where parents don’t speak German, but their children have German-speaking grandparents, their bilingual education at GISC helps build an extra multigenerational connection, Kohlhaas says.

“Immersion happens so naturally and effectively that our students are able to speak with their grandparents or family living in Germany, Austria or Switzerland,” she says. “They can sing songs together and have conversations and it makes them so happy. Parents see that their children are thriving and learning. It’s really wonderful.”

Learn more about an individualized, bilingual IB education at German International School Chicago. Schedule a personal tour at germanschoolchicago.com/admissions/discover-gisc


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Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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