Carolyn Savage's latest piece on the power of language was featured on the Huffington Post.
Despite the English language being the third most widely spoken language in the world and providing a huge benefit to those who enjoy English as their mother tongue, an increasingly globalised world means that more and more companies are finding multilingual candidates more desirable.
Schoolchildren in the UK are said to be the worst in Europe when it comes to learning languages, a statistic which doesn’t bode well for them should they decide to live or work abroad in future. In 2002, the Labour government made the decision to scrap languages as a compulsory subject for UK secondary schools, and now only 22% of state schools and 76% of private ones make languages compulsory in their syllabi, putting British students at more of a disadvantage than ever before.
Arguably because English is so widely spoken and is the lingua franca of the modern world, students in the UK are prone to adopting certain attitudes around foreign language learning; a can’t, won’t, don’t attitude, which doesn’t just hamper their ability to learn a language, but also to succeed. Last year, less than half of UK students took a language at GCSE and research revealed that only one quarter of Brits could hold a conversation with someone in another language.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as 99% of primary schools in the UK now give pupils the opportunity to learn a language, which should help to increase the number of polyglots among British children. Parents can also play their part, by encouraging their children to learn another language, especially as the period between birth and puberty is a critical period for language acquisition.
In comparison to the UK, students from other European countries and those who attend international schools are much more likely to be bilingual. 90% of people from the Netherlands, Sweden and Luxembourg, for example, can hold a conversation in more than one language, compared to just 25% of Brits.
Meanwhile, a third (33%) of students who attend international schools are bilingual, with many others being multilingual. This is because they are constantly immersed in a minimum of three different languages: the language(s) spoken at home, the language of instruction at school and the language of the host country. When I attended an international school as a child, many of my friends were fluent in 3 or even 4 languages by the time they were ten years old.
With 42% of international schools teaching a UK curriculum and 23% teaching the American curriculum, English is often the chosen language of instruction, meaning that increasing numbers of students are becoming proficient in English as the popularity of international schools around the world grows.
How language learning sharpens cognitive abilities
There are many practical benefits to speaking more than one language: you may find it easier to get a job or communicate when travelling, it can be a conversation starter, you have access to many more words, metaphors and concepts, and the list goes on. However, language learning’s stand out, salient benefit lies in the cognitive benefits which extend beyond just the mastery of another language.
Research shows that it is possible to distinguish between bilingual and monolingual people simply by looking at scans of their brains. This is because bilinguals use their anterior cingulate cortex more than monolinguals, meaning that it actually grows in size. This area of the brain is not only linked with regulating heart rate and blood pressure, but also with higher-level skills, such as emotion and decision making.
Consequently, bilingual brains are said to be faster and more accurate in processing information, as well as to have a superior ability to concentrate, solve problems and focus. The ability to think in two languages and decipher the answers to problems and thoughts in the appropriate language provides many benefits. Furthermore, the skills acquired when learning one language are transferable when working in another, so it’s no wonder that bilingualism is desirable in the multinational business world.
Research over the years has shown that being bilingual improves your memory, decision making skills and capability to switch between tasks. Schools that encourage learning more than one language may see an improvement in performance across other subjects because the cognitive benefits extend beyond language learning. Research has shown that those who are bilingual generally perform better in standardised tests such as maths and reading. Additionally, simple mistakes in spelling, also known as cognitive traps, are better avoided when a student speaks more than one language. Learning another language can also aid personal growth, increasing confidence, resilience and open-mindedness.
Not only are these benefits undeniable, perhaps the key benefit of speaking more than one language comes with your wellbeing. Bilingualism has been said to improve your health, as well as to increase your chances of recovering from certain illnesses. Research has suggested that bilingualism slows down natural cognitive decline and delays the onset of dementia by up to five years. It also seems to help you recover from a stroke more quickly.
The decline in the number of students choosing to study another language in the UK is disheartening, as the benefits are undeniable. With increased brain muscle, better intercultural understanding and improved thinking skills, bilingual students gain a competitive edge and a unique vantage point with which to view our increasingly interconnected world.