Making the case for multilingualism as a core component in reforming education

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.

An extensive list of the further academic benefits of foreign language study and second learning for those interested can be found here and here.

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

  1. scofed said:

    I find your perspective interesting and I do agree. I was speaking to someone the other day about learning a second language and was told that they couldn’t learn because they were simply no good with languages.

    This idea led me to a paper by Milton & Meara (1998) in which they compared British 14 year olds to their German and Greek counterparts. They found that the British learners had on 1/3 -1/2 of the vocabulary knowledge of their counterparts and they suggested this was because the hours of formally studying a foreign language is considerably smaller. They also questioned whether the GCSE syllabus was even adequate in teaching kids to communicate effectively in a foreign language.

    I studied GCSE and A-level French, having been taught through the medium of French for my whole Primary school education, and I was not allowed to actively participate in the class because of this. Despite being ‘fluent’ in French, I found it increasingly difficult to give the teachers and examiners what they wanted. In my oral exams I received full marks but in my written exams I struggled. Not because I didn’t know the answers, its was that I had to gauge it at the level they wanted me to. I know that I was the exception rather than the rule, but it demonstrates how the curriculum is designed simply give the ‘right answers’ rather than achieving the highest possible level of achievement. I believe people view learning a second language as a functional skill that is mechanical and boring.

  2. rgadd18 said:

    From looking at the four most common lnaguages it seems like the curriculum teaches the wrong ones! it may have been appropriate in the past to teach French, German, Spanish and Italian because with limited modes of transport and the expense of travel probably meant people from the UK were more likely to travel to Europe, and so these languages would have been beneficial. As we all know this has changed and we can now travel anywhere in the world. Also businesses are multinational now and as you pointed out being multilingual would give you an advantage over others for the job. So i feel the change in the curriculum needs to be the languages that are taught; to Mandarin and Arabic to ensure we keep up with the rest of the world.

  3. Ceri said:

    I really enjoyed reading all of the benefits that bilingualism brings to us. Welsh is my first language, and I like to think that this is a great benefit to me in many ways, too. I feel that learning a new language can be a great benefit as long as it is introduced at an early age, as you have pointed out.
    I was watching the news last week, and in South Wales they are introducing latin lessons for an hour a week to primary school-aged children: I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but why latin to begin with?

  4. oderkerk said:

    Very nicely written, I very much enjoy you discuss bilingualism from a worldly perspective, while at the same time discussing British education.

    When you quote Ken Robinson; “How can we educate children for the future when we don’t know what the future will look like?” This to me is an argument to teach them any kind of skill, not necessarily languages.
    Though I see how learning another language would make you more employable. If we look at language as a skill that opens up new a world of employment. Why could we not spend that same energy of learning another language in learning other skills that, in their own way, open up new worlds of employment. Especially if you already speak a language like English, which is spoken as a second language in many countries.

    Regarding the inherent advantages of being bilingual, I felt that Kovacs & Mehler, (2009) made a good argument for bilingualism. However, as their study was performed on infants 7 months old, wouldn’t this mean that in order to harvest these advantages, bilingual education would be up to the parents, as I believe nursery school in the UK doesn’t begin until the 3rd year of age.

  5. Suzy said:

    I have to agree with Oderkerk’s comment! I have read many of the papers and the evidence on the benefits of bilingualism appears to be abundant, but these benefits are specific, larger and more dramatic, the earlier in the child’s life the second language is learnt. With additional evidence (Steiner, 2008) demonstrating that very young children are more receptive and have an enhanced ability to learn languages, the earlier they are introduced to them. Surely as the education system does not begin until the age of 4, this imposes the learning of these languages onto the parents and not the education system!!
    I would however like to draw your attention to the fact that, there are children leaving primary school unable to read or write at the required level in their first language never mind second language (, maybe this problem should be concentrated on first, or maybe as scofed suggested (with her evidence provided by Milton & Meara, 1998), a second language if learnt earlier, may improve the child’s first language vocabulary!

  6. scofed said:

    On a different tangent I have been looking at research into the benefits of bilingualism in old age and there too the advantages that are reported are phenomenal. Bialystok, Craik & Freedman (2006) examined lifelong bilingualism on maintenance of cognitive functions and the onset of dementia. Bilinguals showed symptom onset of dementia 4 years later than monolinguals and they commented that there is no pharmacological intervention that has comparable effects. I have a strong family history of dementia and if it possible to delay the symptoms by 4 years then that to me is a HUGE advantage of acquiring a second language.

  7. zolucock said:

    Just to pick up on Ceri’s comment, she asked ‘why Latin to begin with?’ From an anecdotal perspective, I was one of only 4 people in our year who took Latin as an extra-curricular class afterschool in year 7, and I worked towards a GCSE in it in year 10. Although it is a ‘dead’ language and I will never say it’s not difficult, it is a wonderfully regular language in terms of verbs, grammar, and sentence structure. Although I cannot remember the majority of what I learned in order to do my GCSE (due to the fact I haven’t used it in about 6 years) I still understand the principles of language that applies to all languages that you can learn. Things like the differences in tense (there are 12 tenses!!), the subjunctive, the past participle etc etc that you just don’t get taught in school, and I think they have helped me significantly in learning other languages since then that I use much more frequently. (Spanish because it is derived from Latin, but also it helped me when I began learning Japanese!)
    Dec, I really enjoyed this blog and I 100% think foreign languages should be taught more effectively in schools (how about by using a Direct Instruction method?), but they should definitely be the most useful ones, even if speaking a foreign language might be an obsolete skill in the near future.

  8. ehe2012 said:

    Couldn’t agree more with this article! Aside from the cognitive and employment benefits which you mention, the most important positive effect of bilingualism, in my opinion, is that it makes people more open minded. Grosjean (1994) reviews surveys of bilinguals from around the world, writing that most surveys have found that most bilinguals appreciate being able to communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds, and feel that their bilingualism gives them a different perspective on life and fosters open-mindedness. He also writes that most bilinguals feel the advantages of bilingualism far outweigh the inconveniences such occasionally mixing languages involuntarily.


  9. cassharp said:

    Shwt mai Declan?!

    Being a bilingual myself I definitely think that it has its benefits… despite being from South Wales speaking welsh has definitely helped me get many of my jobs here in Bangor. I also believe languages can help influence a persons identity, the network of people you involve yourself with, employment etc.

    In the 20th century, bilingualism was viewed as a potential deficit… why? Thankfully, due to research people know see it for its many benefit! 😀

    Being bilingual has been found to benefit our brains (I hope this applies to me):
    1. Creative Thinking – Bilingual people have more words to name/describe objects and items, meaning they are more flexible thinkers
    2. Sensitivity – Bilingual people have to decide what language to speak to others and when is appropriate. In comparison to monolingual people they are more sensitive to the ear of the listener.
    3. IQ – When compared to monolingual people of identical socio-economic class bilingual perform higher on IQ tests
    4. Reading – Canadian researchers have demonstrated that bilingual people find it easier to learn to read as they focus more on the meaning of the word then what the word actually sounds like.

    In conclusion, by learning different languages I feel it expands individuals’ skills and abilities and therefore schools should be offering a range of languages.

  10. At what level would you suggest integrating other languages to our educational system?

    While I agree with your opinion and do not disagree with either the research or the importance of language development in a world where communication between countries and cultures grows ever more important, as a monolingual from a monolingual family, I never had the chance to be surrounded by another language. I did take French for key stage 1 and 2, but never took it further.

    How would you have changed this situation? Would it be made integral to early learning? With basic maths, science and english? The link below show a few welsh government statistics, mainly what interests me is how low the population falls under expectations, achieving lower than expected grades even in the core subjects. If a pupil is struggling with basic english spelling or mathematics, should we be introducing Arabic or Mandarin to their curriculum?

    In conclusion it was overall a very well written blog, with interesting research. Certainly got me thinking!

  11. I do agree that primary schools should introduce second language teaching in their curriculum because as the critical period tells us, children are much better at learning languages before adolescence. Nurseries can also have a bilingual nature in their teaching, perhaps by hiring carers native speakers of other languages. But even if parents cannot expose the child to another language and find that the child will only receive the dual exposure at schools at the age of five, it shouldn’t mean that their child is at any disadvantage. Sequential bilingualism (when children are not expose to the second language until after they have master a first one to some level) shows to be just as beneficial as simultaneous bilingual learning. just like Bialystok (2011) argues, learning another language has numerous benefits, especially for any child in developmental stages. This is not just because of bilingualism itself but learning another language activates and stimulates many parts of the brain that results in cognitive enhancement. This is to say that, yes, early bilingualism is highly beneficial and children can acquire multi-linguistic skills at native-like proficiency if learnt since birth. However, not having this opportunity does not mean that later exposure to a second language has no benefits at all. And better late than never. For example Bialystok (2010) found that bilingualism delays symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease regardless of age of acquisition.

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