Why bilingual is better

18th May 2001 at 01:00
In the past it was thought to be a disadvantage to be torn between two languages. Now children are encouraged to be bilingual. Colin Baker explains why.

Why is bilingualism important for children? Being bilingual, multilingual or monolingual is likely to affect a child's identity, thinking, networks of friends and acquaintances, schooling and employment. It may even help to determine whom they marry. Bilingualism increases opportunities and choices and offers a host of possible advantages: Communication with the whole family and the community: Where parents have a different first language, a child who is bilingual can develop a special relationship with each parent. It creates a bridge between generations - with grandparents, for example. This helps to build a sense of belonging to the extended family and to a community.

Extending enjoyment of reading and writing: If someone can read and write in two languages, they are able to enjoy two literatures in their original language. This can open up a deeper understanding of different traditions, ideas, ways of thinking and behaving. The pleasures of reading novels, poetry and magazines and writing to friends and family are all doubled.

Access to two cultures: Being bilingual opens up two worlds of experience. With a language goes a wealth of idioms and sayings, folk stories and history, poetry, literature and music, both traditional and contemporary.

Tolerance of other languages and cultures: Because two languages give someone a wider cultural experience, there is often a greater understanding of lifestyle differences.

Cognitive benefits: Research has shown that having two well-developed languages can give people particular advantages in thinking. In creative thinking, bilingual children have two or more words for each object and idea. When different meanings are attached to words in the two languages, a bilingual person may develop the ability to thik more flexibly.

Bilingual people have to know which language to speak with whom, and when. They therefore appear to be more sensitive to the needs of listeners. Research from many countries indicates that bilingual people tend to do better in IQ tests compared with monolingual people of the same socio-economic class.

Bilinguals' tendency to be less fixed on the sound and more centred on word meaning has been shown by Canadian researchers to give a boost to learning to read.

Raised self-esteem: Being able to switch naturally between languages makes children feel good about themselves and their abilities.

Security in identity: The Welsh language is one of the few things that differentiates Wales from the rest of the UK and it can be a powerful link between Welsh people everywhere.

Easier to learn a third language: There is growing evidence from European research that bilinguals tend to find it easier to learn other languages. Children from Holland, Denmark and Finland often speak three (or four) languages with ease. In the Basque country learning Basque, Spanish and English has also become increasingly common.

Employment: Bilinguals are increasingly needed in the retail sector, tourism, transport, public relations, banking, administration, translation, secretarial work, marketing and sales, the law and teaching. Being bilingual does not guarantee a meal ticket but it gives a person a valuable skill when job-seeking.

For much of the past century, bilingualism was seen as a potential deficit - in thinking, character formation and not least in schooling. In the past two decades, the dominant international view is that bilingualism has many definite benefits: communication, cultural, cognitive, character, curriculum... and cash.

Colin Baker is professor of education at the University of Wales, Bangor. He will speak on 'Educating for Bilingualism' at 1.30pm on Thursday, May 24

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