Are You Going to Be Bilingual?

You might be one of those people who dream that your English will one day be as good as your first language. Is this possible? Yes, I think it is. But many educators now seem to believe that you should learn two languages when you’re young. I don’t think that’s true or even desirable.

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed it too, but bilingualism is the new buzzword. Someone is bilingual when they speak two languages (from the words bi = two, and lingual = language). Today, many language experts think that learning two languages is so important that school children should be taught in two languages. The idea behind this is that children’s brains are still pliable (= flexible). Learning the two languages will be useful for them throughout their adult lives.

Losers Speak Only One Language Well

That’s nice, but does it mean that you’re a loser if you know only one language well? No, I don’t believe that. The vast majority of Americans speak only English, and in many fields the US is the leading country in the world. In Japan, most people speak only Japanese, and that’s not exactly a primitive country either.

On the other hand, learning languages is good in our times. More and more people move from country to country to study or to work. Now the question is which is the best time to learn that second (or third or fourth) language. I think that you can learn an extra language at any age. Yet the trend in some countries now is to learn an extra language when children are young.


Classroom in Utah (US) where first-graders listen to and read along in Chinese (from Time Magazine)

Learning English and Chinese at Six Years Old

In Time Magazine of 29 July, an article tells about an experiment in elementary schools in the US. Selected students, all first graders, start to learn an additional language besides English. The second language can be Mandarin Chinese, French or Spanish. Soon they will be able to learn Portuguese as well. The pupils will have half of their lessons in English, and the other half they learn in their second language. They learn to speak, read and write in the second language. Once they finish elementary school, they will be able to enter a special school where they continue to learn in their second language.

What do you think, is being bilingual good for the students?

According to the research, there are many advantages to being bilingual. Bilingual students can do the same tasks faster and with fewer mistakes than monolingual students. It’s also healthy for adults to be bilingual; on average, they get dementia four years later than monolingual adults.

However, I read a couple of other articles in other newspapers, and they advised against teaching young students in two languages. They mention the example of India, where students have been taught in English as a second language for years. It turns out that students in India are weak in arguing and in creativity. It’s not only that they are weak in basic skills in their native language, but they also lack the advanced English they would need to tell a complex story or write an essay in English. According to experiments that have been conducted, students who learn to execute basic skills, such as arithmetic and using correct grammar, are more successful when they learn to do them in their first language. Once they have the skills in their first language, learning a second language is beneficial (= good for them).

You Can Be Bilingual

Suppose you think yourself too old to become bilingual, but maybe you have children who you think may benefit from learning another language when they’re still young.

Well, the Time article says that educators in the US think a child is never too young to learn an additional language. The best time to learn a language is before the age of one! Children will copy language patterns from their parents. If a parent is bilingual, the child will learn both those languages and he or she will know the difference!

The Best Strategy

So what’s my opinion? I’ve taught many monolingual students and plenty of bilingual students too. Adults and children. I can’t judge how good my students are at their other school subjects such as math or geography, and I don’t know how good my adult students are at their jobs. But if I look only at the language aspect, I don’t see much difference between monolingual and bilingual students. The first language of my students is usually Hebrew, Arabic or Russian. In some students, I see that it helps them when they’re excellent in their first language. They know how to build a good sentence and to think logically. In other students, it hampers them when they’re excellent in their first language, because they translate every English word they hear or read and they worry constantly that their English will never be as good as their first language. Bilingual students can have their own problems. Some bilingual students are unusually talented. I have one student who is only 8 years old and he knows four languages already and he speaks at least two of those at a high level. I also know some bilingual students who get confused when they learn English, because it’s different from the languages they already know, and their head seems to be too “full” for a new language. As a teacher, I think bilingualism isn’t suitable for all (young) students. But it could be suitable for students who are interested in or talented with languages.

If you’re interested in further reading, have a look at these links:

Here is a nice article from the New York Times about multilinguals (people who know lots of languages): http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/nyregion/a-teenage-master-of-languages-finds-online-fellowship.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

If you want to check out a preview of the article in Time: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2147707,00.html (The full article is available only for subscribers).

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