The Benefits of Bi-lingualism

Ask the parents of our students why they have chosen to have their children educated in English and you’re likely to find as many nuances of response as people that you ask.

Certainly, in a shrinking world where English (at least for now) is the lingua franca it makes sense to prepare your children to operate in that world as efficiently as possible.

In the more imediate term, we hold aspirations for our students that see them thriving at school and later at universities across the world; contributing most fully in lessons and tutorials, debating the content of their lectures, and showing mastery, precision and control over the medium by which they display their knowledge and understanding.

Interesting research has been reported this week in The New York Times which suggests that bi-lingualism has benefits beyond the mere functional.

Evidently attitudes to bi-lingualism have changed over time.  The article reports that through much of the 20th century it was thought that two languages interfere with each other and therefore cause confusion in bi-linguals.  However, this research suggests that in fact the interference helps the development of a bi-lingual’s brain as it flexes its cognitive muscles in sorting out the interference. 

Just as training your biceps through repeated curls makes for a heightened ability to lift stuff, so training your brain by repeated sorting and sifting between languages results in a heightened ability monitor one’s environment.  This heightend ability to monitor the environment results, they say, in better success in problem solving, planning, and perfomance of mentally challenging tasks.

In short, being bi-lingual makes you smarter.

So what does that mean for us?  Well, firstly it means that we are helping our students to do more than just function in a global economy, we are helping them to do better in it as well.  That’s potentially quite powerful.  But, of course, with great power comes great responsibility.  Clearly we need to remember what we know about mother-tongue maintenace and its influence on second language proficiency to ensure that we produce genuine bi-linguals who will benefit from the extra brain power that results.

The article is an interesting read.  You can see it in full at the New York Times here.


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