Mutlilingualism, benefits and issues

Did you know that more than half of the world’s population (that means over 3.5 billion people) is bilingual or multilingual?

“Contrary to what is often believed, most of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. Monolingualism is characteristic only of a minority of the world’s peoples.” [LSA resource]

Strangely this monolingual minority is almost in European countries… Out of the 195 sovereign nations in the world, 160 are listed as multilingual! In those countries the population experience the acquisition of two native languages!

This fact addressed more researches towards multilingualism in the last decades, providing new insights of the mechanisms at work in the multilingual brain. The benefits of multilingualism have been clarified on scientific bases. Investigations have brought to light how multilingualism interacts with and changes the cognitive abilities, boosting the brain power.

Effects of multilingualism on cognitive abilities

… In addition to facilitating cross-cultural communication, this trend also positively affects cognitive abilities. Researchers have shown that the bilingual brain can have better attention and task-switching capacities than the monolingual brain, thanks to its developed ability to inhibit one language while using another. In addition, bilingualism has positive effects at both ends of the age spectrum: Bilingual children as young as seven months can better adjust to environmental changes, while bilingual seniors can experience less cognitive decline.” (by Viorica Marian and Anthony Shook)

Effects of multilingualism on Dementia[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Even the neurological system is affected by being multilingual: a study -led a few years ago in the USA amid patients affected by Alzheimer’s disease, half of whom monolingual and half bilingual- showed that the bilingual group reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than monolingual patients!

“We know that this system deteriorates with age but we have found that at every stage of life it functions better in bilinguals.” said Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto. “They perform at a higher level. It won’t stop them getting Alzheimer’s disease, but they can cope with the disease for longer.”

The benefits of multilingualism

In addition to the quoted benefits (better attention, task-switching capacity, improved cognitive abilities, better capacity to cope with Alzheimer’s disease), I found listed in various documents over 21 advantages of being multilingual! May I quote here only the most relevant of them:

  •  You can understand and appreciate cultural references and nuances
  • Bilingualism can create job opportunities and help you navigate the world.
  •  You notice and appreciate the things that are sometimes lost in translation.
  •  You feel a sense of connection with your heritage, history and family.
  •  Your interactions with people of different cultures go deeper.
  • your self-expression excitingly takes on a multitude of forms.
  • and lastly, self-confidence improves sharply when you can switch from one language to another![/list]

The world development in recent times with its huge surge of global economy and international interactions in all sectors leads more and more people -especially those who do not grow in a multilingual condition- to acquire a second and third language beside their native tongue.

English as “cosmopolitan language”

Amid the various second languages spoken in the world, the English one has taken on a peculiar role: it has spread so widely that the latest estimates see 1.5 billion people worldwide speak English as first, second or foreign language.

English can be nowadays considered the “global language”: it is in fact the official language in several countries and in many international organisations and it is studied and spoken all over the world by an increasing number of learners. Perhaps only Latin had in the ancient times a similar “cosmopolitan” quality as English today.

This trend leads to several questions which I limit here to the following three:

  • how does the English language changes across the boundaries
  • what are the benefits of learning and speaking English
  • how do we learn it? how do we become members of the “English speakers community”?

Who is interested to the first question might find a delight by reading the article of David Crystal about “Emerging Englishes” (read here).

The second question has been answered in the above paragraph “Benefits of multilingualism”.

The third question –how do we learn a second language- is the one I would like to focus here.

How do we learn English

There are two ways to learn a language in extreme synthesis:

  • as native speaker: learning the mother tongue like a newborn baby, full immersed in a language environment where everything and everyone speak that language, beginning from listening, then repeating sounds and key words, eventually speaking basic routines and developing the language at the highest level;
  • as foreign learner: this is how you learn at school from a teacher, from books  and other media. When the lesson is finished you go back to your native language.

In recent years it has been revealed more and more successful the strategy of combining the traditional study of English as “foreign language” with the alive experience of the language through short stay courses or temporary studies abroad (3 or 6 months or one year).

To take the best of this strategy is worthy to plan repeated language experience where learners are in a condition similar to migrants who “breath” English while living amid English speaking people. And with the language the learner also breaths the mentality, the meaning of each expression, the underlaying contents embedded within the language.

We are at the point when young people should aim to learn English as a “second mother tongue”. As well as they should think of adding more emerging languages to their personal skills if they want to compete and be active citizens in the “cosmopolitan” era that has just begun.

Repeated language experiences may rise issues especially for those young learners who are still in educational age. To be aware of the issues helps to overtake them.

The issues of language experiences abroad

When a teenager goes abroad for a language experience, he or she should feel ready for it, not be forced by parents. If a teenager doesn’t feel ready but the parents believe that it is time to do it, a dialogue should be opened to sort out the problem. If the child is too young or not ready, the family may consider a course such as our Learn&Play for children under 13: children in this course must be accompanied by a parent or a responsible adult. This is because going abroad is an experience that requires a certain level of personal development in order to deal with changes in the child’s daily life. Potential issues for a teenager:

  • facing yourself
  •  missing the habits, routines, familiar setting at home and at school
  •  having less communication tools
  •  misunderstanding the meaning but also the “feeling” of the native speakers
  • changing diet, life style, social relations

A language and educational experience

In AEL we want to take into account all those issues and do not ignore that a language experience abroad is a significant, educational step in a process that leads a child to grow up and to be stronger and more confident. Years ago a 12 years old boy had the most difficult time of his childhood: deeply homesick but determined to stay! He and his host-family went through a terrific fortnight. Days were fantastic with activities and outings; nights were nightmares for the boy and host-mother… but they both managed to get to the end (although the host father didn’t want to host again, understandably!). The boy wanted to came back again and was a delight! Years later (about seven if I remember well) the same boy wrote me that he would have liked to visit Devon with his girlfriend to show her the place where “I grew up”!

In rare occasions there have been various issues such as the standard of cleaning or dietary or the deeply different relations between teenagers ands parents in the UK, but what I could see over the 18 years of teenager courses (the first pilot project was in summer 1998), is that we never experienced serious or harmful issues. Children have grown up safely and learn to use English with joy and confidence.

That’s simply my dream in the end: that students can go through enjoyable, intense experiences where they learn English and.. grow up!

In a safe, protected environment they learn to cope with themselves, with the unknown, with the unexpected at the level which is appropriate for their age. and build a good foundation for their further personal development. Learning a language abroad is also to become more self-confident, to share experiences with other human beings walking on the same path, to think on how to solve problems, how to socialise amid humans without the digital interface of a “social” network.

Our pastoral commitment and “Student Carer”

The protection of a student is at the ground of my preparation of each summer: I have children, the host-families have children, teachers have their children and we are all committed to offer our students a thorough pastoral care as much as we wish for our own children when they are abroad, looking after their practical requests as well as their psychological needs.

In the last three years -to improve the care of our students– we have added to the AEL team in each course a “Student Carer” who is dedicated to deal with any difficulty a child might meet with himself or with others. We want to include our students in a safe environment and are committed to this as much as to offer a good language experience.

To keep our awareness clear on any issue we need your feedback every summer: your word counts in AEL and helps to improve our programmes, host-families and student care.

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