Highlights from the American Council of Teaching of Foreign Language

This is a small subset of studies completed and highlighted on the American Council of Teaching of Foreign Languages’ website.  More information is available on the ACTFL.org website.

Studies supporting increased academic achievements

Language learning correlates with higher academic achievement on standardized test measures.

Armstrong, P. W., & Rogers, J. D. (1997). Basic skills revisited: The effects of foreign language instruction on reading, math, and language arts. Learning Languages, 2(3), 20-31.

Third-grade students from were randomly assigned to receive 30-minute Spanish lessons three times a week for one semester. These lessons focused on oral-aural skills and were conducted entirely in Spanish. Students in the Spanish classes scored significantly higher than the group that did not receive Spanish instruction in math and language on the Metropolitan Achievement Test (MAT). There was no significant difference in reading scores.

Johnson, C. E., Flores, J. S., & Eillson, F. P. (1963). The effect of foreign language instruction on basic learning in elementary schools: A second report. The Modern Language Journal, 47(1), 8-11.

This study looked at the effects of 20 minutes of daily Spanish instruction on academic achievement.   Students were given the Iowa Every-Pupil Test of Basic Skills in September of students’ fourth and fifth grade years.  Students receiving Spanish instruction scored higher than the control group in language skills, work study skills, and arithmetic, but the difference was not statistically significant.   Likewise, the control group scored higher than the experimental group in reading vocabulary and reading comprehension, but differences were not significant.  The author concludes that foreign language instruction does not hinder academic achievement.

Lopato, E. W. (1963). FLES and academic achievement. The French Review, 36(5), 499-507.

114 third-grade students from four classrooms participated in this study.   Students were “equated” for grade placement, age, intelligence, and socio-economic status, and teachers were “equated” for fluency in French.  These experimental groups received daily 15-minute French lessons from their classroom teachers, who were both described as “fluent” in French. The French instruction was aural-oral and did not include reading or writing in the target language. The Stanford Achievement Test was given as a pre-test at the beginning of the school year, and an alternate form of the test was given at the end of the school year. At one of the school sites, the experimental group scored significantly higher than the control group on the average arithmetic scores, but not on average reading, spelling, or language.  At the other school site, students receiving foreign language instruction scored significantly higher on the average arithmetic and spelling sections, but not the average reading or language sections of the test.

There is a correlation between second language learning and increased linguistic awareness.

Demont, E. (2001). Contribution of early 2nd-language learning to the development of linguistic awareness and learning to read/Contribution de l’apprentissage précoce d’une deuxième langue au développment de la conscience lingustique et à l’apprentissage de la lecture. International Journal of Psychology, 36(4), 274-285. from PsycINFO database

This study aimed to validate the effects of second language learning on children’s linguistic awareness. More particularly, it examined whether bilingual background improves the ability to manipulate morpho-syntactic structure. The study postulated that children who received a precocious learning of 2 languages (French-German) may develop enhanced awareness and control of syntactic structure since they need an appropriate syntactic repertoire in each language. In return, these children will gain access to the written language with more ease. The results showed an advantage for the children who attended bilingual classes since kindergarten: they were better at grammatical judgment and correction tasks and word recognition.

There is a correlation between language learning and students’ ability to hypothesize in science.

Kessler, C., & Quinn, M. E. (1980). Positive effects of bilingualism on Science problem-solving abilities. In J. Alatis (Ed.), Georgetown  Universityround table on languages and linguistics (pp. 295-308). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, from Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts database.

Examined are the consequences of bilingualism on children’s ability to formulate scientific hypotheses or solutions to science problems & interactions of this ability with aspects of linguistic competence. Experimental group treatment consisted of 12 science inquiry film sessions & 6 discussion sessions, all taught by the same teacher in English. The quality of scientific hypotheses and the complexity of the language used to express them were found to be significantly higher for both experimental groups than for the control groups. However, the bilingual children, given the same instruction by the same teacher in formulating scientific hypotheses, consistently outperformed monolingual children both in the quality of hypotheses generated and in the syntactic complexity of the written language. One implication is that a well-organized bilingual program where children develop in two linguistic perspectives can make the positive interactions of cognitive functioning & language development more fully operative.

There is a correlation between language study and higher scores on the sat and act tests.

Cooper, T. C. (1987). Foreign language study and SAT-verbal scores. Modern Language Journal, 71(4), 381-387. from ERIC database.

Comparison of verbal Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and California Achievement Test (CAT) scores of high school students who had or had not taken at least one year of foreign language study supported the conclusion that length of foreign language study was positively related to high SAT verbal scores.

Eddy, P. A. (1981). The effect of foreign language study in high school on verbal ability as measured by the scholastic aptitude test-verbal. final report. U.S.; District of Columbia, from ERIC database

Students in the eleventh grade in three Montgomery County, Maryland high schools were the subjects of a study to determine the effect of foreign language study on performance on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The following results were reported: (1) when verbal ability is controlled, students who study foreign language for longer periods of time will do better on various SAT sub-tests and on the SAT-Verbal as a whole than students who have studied less foreign language; (2) having studied two foreign languages has no significant effect on SAT scores or on scores on the Test of Academic Progress (TAP); (3) language studied has no differential effect on SAT or TAP scores; and (4) there is some evidence that higher grades in foreign language study will increase the effect of this study on SAT scores (particularly the reading and vocabulary sub-scores). In conclusion, it appears that the effect of foreign language study makes itself felt more in the area of vocabulary development than it does in that of English structure use.

Olsen,  S.A., Brown, L.K. (1992). The relation between high school study of foreign languages and ACT English and mathematics performance. ADFL Bulletin, 23(3), from ERIC database.

Analysis of the American College Test (ACT) scores of 17,451 students applying for college admission between 1981 and 1985 found that high school students who studied a foreign language consistently scored higher on ACT English and mathematics components than did students who did not study a foreign language in high school.

Timpe, E. (1979). The effect of foreign language study on ACT scores. ADFL Bulletin, 11(2), 10-11.

School records of 7,460 students at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale were analyzed to assess the extent to which foreign language study correlates with ACT scores.  Students were selected on the basis of having ACT scores on file and having answered survey questions about their previous foreign language study.  To control for intelligence, students were divided into a “more gifted” group (GPA of 3.0 or higher, college preparatory program, top quarter of their class) and a lower group not meeting the stated requirements.   The authors explain that the more gifted students were more likely to take foreign languages, but that for each group, years of study led to improved composite ACT scores, with the highest effect on scores in the English subsection of the test.

There is a correlation between high school foreign language study and higher academic performance at the college level.

Wiley, P. D. (1985). High school foreign language study and college academic performance. Classical Outlook, 62(2), 33-36. from ERIC database.

Examines the correlation between high school foreign language study and success in college. Found that those who studied Latin, French, German, or Spanish in high school may be expected to perform better academically in college than students of equal academic ability who do not take a foreign language.

Thanks to Amanda Kibler and Sandy Philipose, Graduate Research Assistants of Guadalupe Valdés at Stanford University, for assisting in the compilation of these studies.

This information is not designed to provide a comprehensive review of the research studies available but instead has been compiled to provide support for the benefits of language learning.

References for Cognitive Question

There is evidence that early language learning improves cognitive abilities.

Foster, K. M., & Reeves, C. K. (1989). Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) improves cognitive skills. FLES News, 2(3), 4.

This study looks at the effects of an elementary school foreign language program on basic skills by looking at the relationship between months of elementary foreign language instruction in French and scores on instruments designed to measure cognitive and metacognitive processes. The study included 67 sixth-grade students who were divided into four groups that differed by lengths of time in the foreign language program. There was a control group of 25 students who had no French instruction and three groups of students who had participated in the program for different lengths of time (6.5 months, 15.5 months, and 24.5 months). The students who did receive foreign language instruction had received 30 minutes of French instruction daily after 30 minutes of basal reading in English. The control group received an additional 30 minutes of reading instruction in place of foreign language instruction. The results of the analysis showed that the groups who received foreign language instruction scored significantly higher in three areas (evaluation on the Ross test, total score of all cognitive functions on Ross test, and total score on Butterfly and Moths test) than the control group. In particular, the students who had received foreign language instruction scored higher on tasks involving evaluation which is the highest cognitive skill according to Bloom’s taxonomy. The linear trend analysis showed that the students who had studied French the longest performed the best.

Landry, R. G. (1973). The enhancement of figural creativity through second language learning at the elementary school level. Foreign Language Annals, 7(1), 111-115. from Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts database.

The main hypothesis of this study is that the experience of learning a second language at the elementary school level is positively correlated to divergent thinking in figural tasks. This study is concerned with flexibility in thinking through experience with a foreign language. Comparisons are made between second language learners and single language learners. The second language learners score significantly higher than do the monolingual students. Second language learning appears, therefore, not only to provide children with the ability to depart from the traditional approaches to a problem, but also to supply them with possible rich resources for new and different ideas.

Bamford, K. W., & Mizokawa, D. T. (1991). Additive-bilingual (immersion) education: Cognitive and language development. Language Learning, 41(3), 413-429. from ERIC database.

Examination of a second grade additive-bilingual (Spanish-immersion) classroom, compared to a monolingual classroom for nonverbal problem-solving and native-language development, found significant differences in problem solving in favor of the bilingual class and no significant differences in native-language development

Find out more about the benefits of language learning by investigating these resources.

Weatherford, H. J. (1986). Personal benefits of foreign language study. ERIC digest.   U.S.; District of Columbia:

There is an increasing awareness of the usefulness of foreign language training in a number of seemingly diverse areas. Foreign language students develop not only technical skills related to language use but also tangible advantages in the job market because of their increased communication skills. Mastery of languages also enhances the enjoyment of travel abroad and reduces frustration and isolation during travel in other countries. Increased international business opportunities have made meaningful communication and understanding between cultures more valuable, and the individual’s ability to understand and empathize across cultural lines is increased with language study. In addition, research suggests that foreign language study enhances both cognitive development and academic achievement. While it is certain that people familiar with more than one language and culture can communicate more effectively with people of other countries and cultures, it is also possible that through learning another language and culture, people become more effective problem-solvers, closer to achieving solutions to pressing social problems because of an increased awareness of a wider set of options. (MSE)

There is evidence bilingualism correlates with increased cognitive development and abilities.

Ben-Zeev, S. (1977). The influence of bilingualism on cognitive strategy and cognitive development. Child Development, 48(3), 1009-1018. from PsycINFO database.

Hypothesized that mutual interference between a bilingual child’s 2 languages forces the child to develop particular coping strategies which in some ways accelerate cognitive development. The sample consisted of 96 5-8 yr olds: 2 groups of Hebrew-English bilinguals, one group tested in the US and the other group tested in Israel; and 2 groups of monolinguals, with those tested in the US speaking only English and those tested in Israelspeaking only Hebrew. In all groups parent occupation and education level were similarly high. In spite of lower vocabulary level, bilinguals showed more advanced processing of verbal material, more discriminating perceptual distinctions, more propensity to search for structure in perceptual situations, and more capacity to reorganize their perceptions in response to feedback.

Research completed by the state of Connecticut


Regarding World Language Education NEA Research, December 2007 The Benefits of Second Language Study

Second language study enhances career opportunities.

  • Studying a foreign language helps students understand English grammar better and improves their overall communication and problem-solving skills. Beyond the intellectual benefits, knowledge of a foreign language facilitates travel, enhances career opportunities, and enables one to learn more about different peoples and cultures. (National Research Council 2007)
  • In a survey of 581 alumni of The American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona, most respondents said they had gained a competitive advantage from their knowledge of foreign languages and other cultures. They said that not only was language study often a critical factor in hiring decisions and in enhancing their career paths, it also provided personal fulfillment, mental discipline, and cultural enlightenment. (Grosse 2004)
  • In recent years, the U.S. government has expressed a need for fluent speakers of languages other than English, particularly in less commonly taught languages such as Arabic and Chinese (U.S. General Accounting Office 2002).

Early second language learning enriches and enhances cognitive development

“The power to learn a language is so great in the young child that it doesn’t seem to matter how many languages you seem to throw their way….They can learn as many spoken languages as you can allow them to hear systematically and regularly at the same time.

Children just have this capacity. Their brain is ripe to do this…there doesn’t seem to be any detriment to….develop[ing] several languages at the same time” according to Dr. Susan Curtiss, UCLA Linguistics professor. (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004)

  • “The learning experiences of a child determine which [neural] connections are developed and which no longer function. That means what is easy and natural for a child – learning a language – can become hard work for an older learner.” (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004)
  • Research indicates that children who are exposed to a foreign language at a young age achieve higher levels of cognitive development at an earlier age. (Bialystok & Hakuta 1994; Fuchsen 1989)
  • Language learners show greater cognitive flexibility, better problem solving and higher order thinking skills. (Hakuta 1986)
  • People who are competent in more than one language consistently outscore monolinguals on tests of verbal and nonverbal intelligence. (Bruck, Lambert, Tucker 1974, Hakuta 1986, Weatherford 1986)
  • Foreign language learners have better listening skills and sharper memories than their
  • Students of foreign languages may have better career opportunities. (Carreira & Armengol ommonly taught languages such as Arabic and Chinese (U.S. General Accounting Office 2002). • Students of foreign languages may have better career opportunities. (Carreira & Armengol

Barriers to second language study • “…Not only are American secondary school students studying foreign languages too seldom, and with too little intensity, they are failing to study in sufficient numbers many of the languages essential to meeting the challenges of a new era. (Committee for Economic Development 2006).