Bilingualism and Mental Health

From Psychiatric News:

According to research by Wen-Jui Han, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, and Chien-Chung Huang, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Rutgers University School of Social Work, being able to speak two languages seems to reduce negative internalizing and externalizing behaviors in Asian-American children. In contrast, not being able to speak English appears to promote such problems. So, bilingualism can benefit kids not only academically but psychologically, at least in Asian-American children.

The study also demonstrated that those children who spoke a foreign language and not English experienced even more internalizing and externalizing behaviors by the fifth grade than did English-only-speaking children. Han told Psychiatric News that he was surprised by this outcome. He had expected that not being fluent in English might hurt children’s social and emotional well-being, but not to the extent that their study found.

“Parents should be encouraged to speak their native language with their children, [and] schools should be encouraged to nurture bilingualism, not just English….,” said Han.  But parents and schools should also make sure that children reared in a foreign language become fluent in English so that they can function well academically and not suffer psychologically because of their difficulty in communicating in English.

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I personally am not sure if it’s being bilingual that makes these kids emotionally more stable. From my own experience, I think it may have something to do with knowing a language (English) that allows you to express your emotions openly and clearly. It seems that the study didn’t look at kids that only spoke English, so it’s hard to tell whether the result has more to do with knowing English better. But if your teachers (and everyone else but your family) only spoke English, it would be kind of hard to get your emotional point across if you couldn’t speak the language well.

I am technically bilingual, but I would not be able to express myself adequately if I didn’t know English.

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