The bilingualism debate
Ever been to Spain and wished you could do more than order a beer in Spanish? Ever watched Amelie and wished you didn’t need subtitles? Ever wished you could understand the menu at your favourite Thai restaurant?
We all know speaking a foreign language is useful for travelling, socialising and getting to know other cultures, but did you know that being bilingual (or multilingual) is actually good for your brain?
Bilingualism is the norm in this world. There are more bilinguals than there are monolinguals. Living in a country like South Africa especially, bilingualism (and multilingualism) is prevalent. no matter what community you live in. There are not many parts of this country where people speak only one language, but this is usually out of necessity and as a result of circumstances rather than a decision on the part of parents.
Funnily enough, when parents do have to make a conscious decision to raise bilingual children – in other words, it won’t happen naturally – parents often choose not to. There are a number of reasons for this but I think we need to get one thing straight right off the bat –> they’re all rubbish*. There is no reason not to raise your children bilingually and so many reasons you should.
*just my opinion
But let me calm down for a minute. Pour yourself a cup of tea and get comfortable, because what I am about to tell you will hopefully change your mind about foreign language learning.
Firstly, no, your child will not be confused if they are exposed to more than one language. The brain is a very powerful organ and capable of doing a lot more than we think it can. It can handle learning more than one language at the same time. Your child may use certain languages to speak to certain people – for example, they may speak Afrikaans only to Ouma because Ouma speaks Afrikaans – but this is a part of the learning process. Clever little things, aren’t they?
Secondly, no, your child will not be delayed developmentally if they are learning more than one language. Monolingual children are just as likely to show a so-called delay as bilingual children and there are many reasons a child may take longer to speak than their friends besides interference from their languages.
Thirdly, yes, your child will mix up languages when they speak. This is normal. If you are learning to speak a language and you don’t know a particular word, your brain likes to use the same word in a different language in its place. This is called code-switching. Adults do it all the time when one language can communicate an idea better than another one. This is in fact an advantage for your child because a monolingual child doesn’t have the possibility of using another language and so cannot communicate what they want to say if they don’t know how to express themselves in one language. Of course it can mean that your child may be tongue tied once in a while as they try to look for the word in the correct language, but anybody who’s been pregnant knows that this is a perfectly normal situation.
On the other hand…
1. The cognitive benefits
A bilingual child’s brain is constantly balancing between two languages. With every sentence it must make a decision about which language to use and then must focus on constructing a correct sentence in that language. This is exercise for the brain, to be sure, but this is only a good thing. As a result of this brain training, bilingual children have been shown to concentrate better, have better memories and cope with distractions better. They are better at multi-tasking, creative thinking and problem-solving.
2. The academic benefits
It is logical that being bilingual makes learning other foreign languages easier, but bilingualism has positive effects on general academic performance as well. Bilinguals perform better at school in Maths and reading than monolingual students. What’s more, being bilingual gives you greater insight into your first language with the result that bilinguals are very effective communicators.
3. The career benefits
Moving on from school, being bilingual is advantageous in the workplace. These days, bilinguals are highly valued in the workplace. Even though English may be the international language of business, it is common for companies to do business in an international environment, meaning that there is a need for employees who can communicate in more than one language. If you can add the skill of speaking another language to your CV, you may even earn more money!
3. The health benefits
As if all that wasn’t enough, being bilingual has been proven to delay the onset of dementia. Studies have shown that a bilinguals who develop dementia do so five years later than monolinguals – independent of their education, sex or occupation.
Wow. Ok. So much to talk about, but I’ll stop there for now. Soon I’ll look at ways you can expose your children to different languages – even if you can’t speak the other language yourself. For now, I hope this has given you something to think about.
Would love to hear any of your questions or comments!