We cover six facts about bilingualism and learning bilingualism in schools that everyone needs to know
26 September 2021| Last updated on 26 September 2021
Raising bilingual children or placing them in bilingual programmes encourages plenty of lifelong skills.
Bilingualism is much more than learning another language. How well people speak a second language (or more) depends on age, family life, language education, and how often we can practice that language with native speakers.
In this article, we’ll share six things you might not have known about bilingualism.
1. Bilingualism isn't as rare as you think
More than half of the world’s population speaks more than one language or dialect. Bilingual estimates include dialects, which add to the number of bilingual people. For example, a Swiss German who also learns standardised High German in school could be called bilingual.
The US is the second largest community of Spanish speakers after Mexico. Scandinavian countries have a high level of English speakers because of an early integration of language education in schools. There are currently more people studying English in China than in any other country. Many other Asian countries embrace English language education by sending their children to learn abroad, or choosing English above a neighboring language.
Also, bilingual people will take note when they see someone mistreat another person for speaking poorly or with an accent. They naturally have more empathy for others learning or speaking foreign languages.
2. It's better to learn a language earlier
Language and literacy development begins before children are born. The brains of babies in bilingual households develop differently from those raised in a monolingual household.
One study showed babies born to bilingual mothers not only prefer both languages over others, but they also know that the two languages are different!
In infancy, children experiment with language through sounds and eventually, words. Oral language is a key milestone for early literacy development before children learn to read. While bilingual babies take longer to distinguish phonetic sounds, once they recognise these sounds, they hear them in both languages. Monolingual babies lose this facility by the time they are one.
Children who learn a second language (or two languages simultaneously) best develop native-like pronunciation and intonation. They also have more time and less content to learn, have fewer inhibitions, and don’t fear making mistakes, which may be common for older language learners.
Over the course of 4 to 7 years, children will go through five phases of second language proficiency, from a silent period to early production, speech immersion, and intermediate to advanced fluency.
Another benefit of children learning more languages is that they are more open to and curious about other people and cultures than their adult counterparts.
3. Bilingual students do well academically and socially
Bilingualism enhances academic performance. Students who know more than one language out-score monolingual peers in verbal and math sections of standardised tests, and do better in school.
One study demonstrated that bilingual kids better interpreted others’ intentions, and were skilled at putting themselves in the shoes of others and reading a situation from their perspective. Bilingual children are considered more socially intelligent than their monolingual peers because they develop more interpersonal and listening skills, which are essential today.
In fact, their demeanor could change according to the language they’re speaking, as language is strongly tied to culture.
Because humour and proverbs require cultural context, bilingual people are culturally aware. A proverb from one culture may not sound as profound in another language. The same is true of puns that only work in one language and not another.
4. Bilingual speakers improve other areas of cognitive function
Because they have double the vocabulary as monolingual people, bilingual children have more flexible cognitive abilities. Their bilingualism helps them with executive functions like multitasking and solving problems involving logic.
The mental exhaustion of switching between languages decreases as language skills increase. The cognitive effort required for bilingualism has benefits for the brain and overall health. These benefits include increased flexibility and adaptability, higher ability to organise conflicting information, increased concentration, problem-solving, and mental agility.
As neurodegenerative diseases like dementia can be kept at bay through brain exercises, bilingualism has been linked to a delay in the onset of dementia and faster recovery after stroke.
5. Adults can still become bilingual
Although our ability to hear and understand a second language becomes more difficult with age, adult brains can be trained to pick up foreign sounds more easily. The difficulties adults may have in learning languages are perceptual, not biological. In the right environment, adults can overcome the habits they’ve developed to learn unfamiliar sounds.
6. Bilingualism must be practiced
Similar to any physical activity or hobby, language skills increase or decrease according to how much we practice them. If you don’t use the skill, you lose it. This may be even more so as languages adapt and change over time, as is the case with French, German, and Spanish. We encourage all of our students to continue speaking and practicing all the languages they know!
Bilingual speakers experience life in more ways than monolinguals. It enables them to get so much more out of life as they speak to more people.
The Swiss International Scientific School in Dubai is one of the only truly bilingual schools in the UAE. SISD offers English/French, English/German, and English with French or German as a second language.
The majority of their students are bilingual.