Having been brought up in a bilingual household, and been educated through different languages at various points in my life, I strongly believe that bilingualism has been (and continues to be) of great benefit to me. Now, at a time when our traditional British education is in drastic need of reform, I believe that the benefits of a bilingual (perhaps even a multilingual) education need to be addressed.
A genuine concern for education in the United Kingdom was addressed by Ken Robinson – How can we educate children for the future when we don’t know what the future will look like? I think teaching children more than one language from an early age is one step in a better direction.
I am fluent in Welsh, a language spoken by only 750,000 people worldwide. Yet this ability gives me a strong advantage over non-Welsh speakers when applying for jobs in this country. Learning languages increases mobility, communication and employability (Languages, Linguistics & Area Studies, 2005). The more languages you are able to speak, the more job markets are available to you. The four most widely spoken languages in the world are Mandarin, Spanish, English, and Arabic. Over two billion people speak these languages worldwide. Imagine how much more employable each one of us would be if we left school fluent in these languages.
Johnson & Newport (1989) found that between the age of 3 and 15 there is a linear relationship between how early a child learns a language and later proficiency in that language. Essentially, learning a language earlier improves the chances of achieving fluency. Even if rote learning has become obsolete in our globalized, information abundant age, the ability to communicate fluently with a person who doesn’t speak your native language is not something that can be devalued by technology. A study of both American and Chinese native speakers found that non-native individuals with higher fluency are rated more positively than less fluent non-natives (White & Li, 1991). Furthermore, poor language fluency in individuals interviewing for jobs in non-native countries creates a negative impression of professional competence (Molinsky, 2005).
Even if technology eventually allows real time face-to-face translation (and it looks like that is just around the corner), learning a second language early in life has numerous cognitive benefits that manifest throughout life. Bilingual babies show better executive function than monolingual babies, evident in their ability to learn new contingencies and rules in confusing games (Shallice, 1992; Kovacs & Mehler, 2009). Bilingualism is also positively correlated with many desirable intellectual qualities, such as working memory, attentional control, abstract and symbolic representational skills, creativity, and metalinguistic awareness (Adescope, 2010; Ricciardelli, 1992).
Finally, and perhaps most relevantly to the issue of educational reform, bilingual individuals show higher scores than monolinguals in tests of critical thinking and divergent thinking (Merrikhi, 2011; Kharkhurin, 2008). Furthermore the earlier the second language is acquired the greater the effect. It is suggested that the sharing of the conceptual system by the two linked lexicons enhances divergent thinking.
As educators, parents, and a society I believe that by failing to teach children useful languages at a young age, we are depriving them of valuable cognitive skills, limiting their job opportunities later in life, and placing them at a disadvantage to children in bilingual cultures. In light of the evidence I have presented, I think the British education system would be significantly improved by teaching foreign languages far earlier and more thoroughly than we presently do, and is an area that I feel is long overdue for reform