The Bilingual Advantage

More than half the world’s population is bilingual, and as the world becomes ‘smaller’, children should be encouraged to learn a second or even a third language.

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When we say the world is getting smaller, this does not mean it is physically shrinking. It means that we are now more connected than ever – able to travel easily, more exposed to different cultures, and doing business on a global scale. 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 speaking just one language is enough to get by these days. 

Foreign languages are becoming less popular subject choices for secondary school students in the UK, according to a BBC education news article published in 2019. The article stated that there was a drop of between 30% and 50% in students taking GCSE language courses, with languages like German and French suffering the greatest decline. On the other hand, languages like Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin have increased – this makes sense as these along with Hindi, Portuguese, Russian and Bengali are currently the most spoken languages in the world. With over 40% of the world’s population speaking at least two languages including their mother tongue, it makes sense to encourage children to learn a second language. 

In Malaysia, all schools (private, national, international) teach more than one language. National schools teach in Malay and have lessons to learn English and Mandarin, and international schools offer languages like Mandarin, Malay, French, German and Spanish. 

Why should there be an emphasis on learning a second language? 

The advantages are plentiful and far reaching, from paving the way to more job opportunities to being more culturally aware. International schools offer opportunities to learn a second and even a third language from primary school through to secondary qualifications like IGCSE, A Levels and the International Baccalaureate. 

Benefits of learning a new language 

Cognitive development: defined as the way a child thinks, problem solves, and understands and uses language. Learning a second language as a young child enhances intellectual performance, and even if they fall back academically, they are able to easily catch up as they mature and master the language. 

Cross-cultural empathy: speaking another language opens the door to new experiences, art, literature, food and cultures. It encourages a child to be aware and interested in learning about people from a different background, and to broaden their horizons. From here, the journey to becoming a true global citizen begins. 

International families: interracial marriages are now the norm with parents coming from diverse backgrounds and continents. By speaking the languages of both parents, children will always feel connected to family and the heritage of both parents. 

From bilingual to multilingual: children who pick up a second language can usually easily learn a third, especially if they are of similar linguistic origin, 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 opt to take a Modern Languages degree, which unfortunately is declining in popularity especially in British universities. But while languages have lost their lustre at tertiary level, combining it with subjects like politics, international management, mathematics, linguistics and economics is a good option. This can lead to job opportunities that include teaching, transport and logistics, international aid work, diplomatic or civil service, media, marketing and human resources. Speaking a second language well also increases the chances of working overseas. 

Slow down the brain’s ageing process: studies have shown that learning a second language, even as an older adult, can stave off the effects of dementia. Learning a new language at any age improves cognitive abilities and increases neural pathways, which are a series of connected neurons sending signals to and from different parts of the brain. Simply put, your brain functions better and for longer. 

Improve communication skills: a study published in the scientific journal Psychological Science, noted that bilingual children were better at communicating. This in turn leads to being more confident and having better social skills. 

An international, multilingual education 

An international school education offers many academic and social advantages. One of the most important ones is that there are excellent opportunities to learn a second and even a third language taught by native speakers. In Malaysia, languages taught in international schools include Mandarin, French, Spanish, Malay and German. 

Students begin learning a foreign language in primary school (Year 1), and in Year 5, they can take up a second language and continue to do so through to secondary level. This means they also have the opportunity to becoming bilingual by the time they go to university and may even opt for a language degree. 

There are very few people who speak only one language in Malaysia with the minimum requirements being your mother tongue, the national language and a dialect. More than half the world’s population speak more than one language, and more than half of the population of the European Union can speak at least two languages well. The world is getting smaller and, accordingly, working and conducting business across borders has become the norm. By learning Malay (over 280 million speakers), Mandarin (1.1 billion), French (80 million) or Spanish (477 million), today’s students will be able to work, travel, do business and experience different cultures with ease. 

Tags: News & Features, Feature, Schools, Preschool, Primary, Secondary, Languages
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