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Mother Language Day: Why learning a foreign language is important

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answering questions in classPrior to becoming an ELT Editor for Oxford University Press, Mexico, Lysette Taplin worked as an English language teacher and ELT author for a number of primary and secondary series. In this post she discusses the importance of learning a foreign language to foster linguistic and cultural diversity and the positive effects it has on the cognitive process.

International Mother Language Day has been celebrated every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism in an increasingly globalized world is vital to achieve meaningful communication between nations and strengthen the unity and cohesion of societies. Today, there are around 7,000 languages in the world, and an increasing number of situations in which two or more languages co-exist and are indispensable in everyday communication. UNESCO’s decision to celebrate International Mother Language Day derives from the importance of linguistic diversity and the need to maintain and revive minority languages.

Through learning languages, even just by mastering a second language, we develop a fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions (UNESCO, n.d.). And besides the obvious practical benefits learning a foreign language provides, it has been demonstrated to improve memory and brain power and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, can have a positive effect on the brain. Students who speak more than one language tend to outperform peers in math and reading (French Immersion School of Washington, n.d.; Anne Merritt, 2013), and are more adept at focusing on relevant information by ignoring irrelevant and misleading stimuli. This can be due to the fact that by learning another language, we have to switch back and forth between two distinct systems of rules, challenging the brain to recognize and work out meaning. For this reason, bilingual students learn to become critical thinkers and perform better at problem-solving tasks. The brain has also been likened to a muscle since it is said to function better with exercise. Language learners need to memorize rules and vocabulary and thus strengthen their cognitive muscles, making them better at memorizing lists and sequences (Anne Merritt, 2013).

Learning a second language can also develop mother tongue skills. Generally, not much attention is paid to the grammatical structures of our native tongue, but once we start to focus on the mechanics of a second language: grammar, conjugations and sentence structure, our awareness of our L1 improves. These transferable skills give bilingual students a greater insight into their mother tongue, thus making them more effective communicators as well as better writers.

Bilingualism’s effects also extend into later life. Recent studies have shown that bilingual patients were more resistant to the onset of dementia. On average, individuals with a proficiency in two or more languages developed dementia 4.5 years later than monolingual ones (Suvarna Alladi et al., 2013; Anne Merritt, 2013).

But aside from the positive effects on our cognitive process, learning a second language opens the door into a particular culture, broadening our understanding of a race and culture, and making us more appreciative of other perspectives. Once I started to learn a second language, I began to experience how learning about another culture, in my case Mexico, has enabled me to achieve a significantly more profound understanding and appreciation of my own. As a Brit living in Mexico, I feel a stronger connection to my heritage which I took for granted when living in England. Not only that, I now have access to an assortment of literature, movies and music in their original form, giving me the opportunity to view the world from different vantage points.

Learning a second language has been a truly rewarding experience, and has enabled me to build deep and meaningful relationships with people in foreign communities as well as becoming more flexible and creative in my ways of thinking. It has also opened up a whole world of opportunities when it comes to travel and I have been lucky enough to have had the chance to visit local indigenous communities where Spanish is not their first language. Without a doubt, bilingualism and multilingualism provide the possibility to bridge both the linguistic and cultural gap between countries as well as being a great asset to the cognitive process.

References

UNESCO, International Mother Language Day, 21 February 2012, (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/strengthening-education-systems/languages-in-education/international-mother-language-day/

French Immersion School of Washington, (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.fisw.org/admission/BilingualBenefits.cfm; Anne Merritt, Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html

Anne Merritt, Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html

Suvarna Alladi, DM, Thomas H. Bak, MD, Vasanta Duggirala, PhD, Bapiraju Surampudi, PhD, Mekala Shailaja, MA, Anuj Kumar Shukla, MPhil, Jaydip Ray Chaudhuri, DM and Subhash Kaul, DM, Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.neurology.org/content/early/2013/11/06/01.wnl.0000436620.33155.a4.abstract; Anne Merritt, Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

9 thoughts on “Mother Language Day: Why learning a foreign language is important

  1. Reblogged this on Halina's Thoughts and commented:
    Through learning languages, even just by mastering a second language, we develop a fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions (UNESCO, n.d.). And besides the obvious practical benefits learning a foreign language provides, it has been demonstrated to improve memory and brain power and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head at the end. I’ve seen challenges to some of the side-benefits of learning a language that you mention. And I tend to think that if you want to get better at math or be healthier, there are better routes than learning a language.

    But the direct advantages of learning a language–more people you can talk with, more books you can read, more places you can feel comfortable–are the exact things that make life worth living in the first place.

    Jeremy
    http://stuartmillenglish.com

  3. Being bilingual, I find solving linguistic problems reciprocally easy.

  4. I speak 3 languages since my school days and I have always felt a sense of confidence apart from being cognitively quite strong in comparison with my peers. Some people wonder as to how you switch from one language to another , but that happens in automation and effortlessly too.
    Many thanks for writing a thoughtful article.

  5. I couldn’t agree more about viewing the world from different vantage points. At certain level of fluency we acquire a different way of understanding the world and a different way of thinking and perceiving reality. As if the whole culture came with language skills in a package deal.

  6. Hi Lysette, Greg Horton here from Wildern School. I’m MFL Adviser for Hampshire and I’d like to include your article in our next publication. Is that ok?

  7. The best way to improve learning skills is to talk with foreigners as often as it is possible. Thanks to website below you can do it, and don’t have to worry about mistakes. The only one who doesn’t make mistakes is the one who doesn’t do anything! btw. sory for my english. I am the one who must improve language skills
    http://speaking7.com/

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