The world is getting smaller and globalisation has become the norm.
While English is the most influential language in the world and is generally accepted as the language of international business, it would be a mistake to think that being monolingual is enough.
Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali and Russian are currently the most spoken languages in the world, with many people speaking at least one other language besides their mother tongue.
This is particularly true due to the rise of intermarriages where children grow up speaking the languages of both parents.
An international school education obviously offers many advantages; one of them being the excellent opportunity to learn a second or even third language.
Where once STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects were the mainstay of a good education and future job success, parents have realised that speaking more than just your mother tongue paves the way for many more job opportunities.
Studies have also shown that people who are bilingual are more focused and are, unsurprisingly, better multi-taskers.
In Malaysia, the popular languages offered in international schools are Malay, Mandarin, French and Spanish. Children begin classes in primary school and go all the way to secondary, which means they have the opportunity to be bilingual by the time they reach university.
It’s said that children learn naturally while adults learn better, which means that the best time to expose a child to a second language is when they begin pre-school or around the age of three.
Another advantage of starting at an early age is that they will sound more like a native speaker.
WHY A SECOND (OR THIRD) LANGUAGE IS SUCH AN ADVANTAGE
• Increase intellect
This may sound almost condescending, but the fact is that learning a language as a young child does enhance intellectual performance. Sometimes bilingual children fall back academically but very rapidly catch up as they mature.
• Cross-cultural empathy
Speaking another language opens a child’s eyes to different cultures, cuisines, art, music and books; and this helps in making him or her a true global citizen with an innate sense of curiosity about other ethnicities.
• International families
Mixed marriages are now the norm with parents coming from diverse backgrounds and continents; and by speaking the languages of both parents, children will always feel connected to family.
• From bilingual to multilingual
Children who pick up a second language can usually easily learn a third, especially if they’re similar, e.g. French, Spanish or Italian. While some children are naturally adept at learning a new language, starting at the right age ensures that even those who have difficulties at first will eventually have a working knowledge.
• Future job prospects
Bilingual children can eventually opt to take a Modern Languages degree, which hasn’t had great press, especially in British schools where the study of languages has lost its lustre recently.
But, these degrees aren’t just about the language and are usually paired with subjects like Politics, European Studies, Linguistics and International Management. Job opportunities include teaching, journalism, international aid work, diplomatic or civil service and having a good chance to work abroad.
• Stave off dementia
Studies have shown that learning a second language and being bilingual can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and other symptoms of dementia. That’s not to say that if you’re bilingual, you’re not susceptible to dementia, but it seems to appear much later than in monolinguals.
• Improve communication skills
A study published in Psychological Science, the scientific journal for the Association of Psychological Science, noted that bilingual children were better at communicating and overall had better social skills compared to their monolingual peers.
Most international schools here have native speaking language teachers and classes begin in Year 1 when the children are six years old.
The common languages offered are Mandarin, French and Bahasa Malaysia (compulsory for all Malaysian citizens attending international school).
In Year 5 (age nine), students take up a second language and this continues throughout secondary school until their IGCSEs. They can then pursue these languages up to their A Levels and through to university. Languages are also an integral part of the International Baccalaureate diploma.
In Malaysia, there are very few people who only speak one language. It would seem that the minimum requirement is their mother tongue, a dialect and the national language of Bahasa Malaysia.
One of the great things of living in a truly multicultural country is the opportunity to learn something new. Take the opportunity to learn Malay (approx. 281 million speakers globally) and Mandarin (1.1 billion speakers), and encourage your children to take learning a second language seriously.
It may take a lot of effort and there will be days when your children will complain about how difficult it is, but one day they may turn around and say “Gracias”, “Merci” or “Terima Kasih” after scoring brilliant grades, and it would have been well worth the effort.