Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


Mother Language Day: Why learning a foreign language is important

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.


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

1 Comment

Using discussion posters and… an elephant’s foot

Elephant's foot

Image courtesy of valentinastorti via Flickr

Kenna Bourke, co-author of the forthcoming Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, explores the benefits of using discussion posters with young children to aid learning, cognitive skills, and vocabulary development.

Sometime around the age of one to one and a half, I made an incredible discovery: speech! No longer was I just a helpless, gurgling baby making faces at my parents. Oh, no! I could now ask questions. How cool!

And not only could I ask questions, and get answers, but this new found skill gave me one Very Special Power: the ability to drive my parents crazy. I’m reliably informed that many conversations went something like this:

Me: What’s that?
Mum: It’s a table.
Me: Hmm. What’s that?
Dad: It’s a banana, but I think you know that.
Me: (grinning) What’s that?
Mum: You know perfectly well what it is.
Dad: It’s an elephant’s foot.
Me: (laughing uncontrollably) No, it’s not! It’s a book!

Sound familiar? I don’t think I can have been the only kid to use the ‘extreme interrogation technique’ for the sole purpose of testing my parents’ patience. It’s in the nature of children to ask questions – lots and lots of questions. That’s how we build basic vocabulary as children: we see something, we wonder what its name is, we point, we ask a question, and BANG! We get an answer. Then we store the image and answer, and the next time we see the object, we know what it is. Excellent.

The curiosity of a child is perhaps the best teaching tool we have. So how do we harness this natural thirst for knowledge?

Well, one way is through the power of the poster. These days we almost take posters for granted. Are they pretty decorative items that make our classrooms look bright and cheery? Yes, but … now it’s the adult’s turn to ask the question, ‘What’s that?’ Here are three things that posters are invaluable for:

Triggering critical thinking

Like me, you may have had an animal alphabet when you were a child. A is for antelope; G is for giraffe; Z is for zebra; X is a problem (!); and that helped you remember the letters of the alphabet. But posters don’t have to be limited to single word associations – they can help students connect concepts.

Think of a colour chart, for example. We can either put splodges of colour on a poster and print the words red, blue, yellow, and so on under the splodges, or we can use posters to go well beyond vocabulary acquisition by presenting a series of interlinked concepts, as in the poster to the right (click to download). In presenting concepts visually, we enable children to think more deeply and meaningfully about a topic. With a poster like this one, you could put students into pairs and ask them to give examples from their own experience and knowledge: where have they seen colours in nature? Have they ever made a colour? Is colour a good thing? What colourful animals can they name? Why might some animals be colourful? They then share their ideas with another pair.

Boosting memory

We know that the cognitive process is enhanced by images. Just as with real physical objects, like books, tables, and bananas, images enable learners to recognize and recall, making it easier for them to internalize meaning and store that meaning in their memory banks. To this day, I clearly remember a poster in my history teacher’s classroom. It was a satirical image of a famous politician with a boiled egg instead of a head. And to this day, because of that image, I could tell you all about him.

A striking image stays imprinted on the memory. It acts as the foundation for a pattern of thoughts and memories – a story if you like – in much the same way that a few bars of music can conjure up memories many years later. Using any good poster, try giving students a minute to remember as much as they can. Then hide the poster or ask students to stand with their backs to it. What do they remember? Why do they remember that? What associations did they make with the image?

Creating equality

Posters have the power to make all students equal. Images free up the imagination and give everyone a voice. As a teacher, you can ask students to say what they see in the poster and there’s no wrong answer. Every answer is equally valid and everyone, from the loudest to the quietest, gets a chance to voice an opinion and react to what he or she sees. It’s very hard not to have some sort of reaction to a visual image (you may like what you see, or you may dislike it; it may provoke a thought or remind you of something) and this means that discussion happens naturally and effortlessly. Child A looking at a poster may see a boy and a girl, but Child B, looking at the same image, may see a family or friends.

Clouds at sunsetWith any image or poster you like, try asking students to brainstorm thoughts, words, feelings, or memories. One child may see a picture of a cloud, while another may see … an elephant’s foot. And who’s to say a cloud can’t be an elephant’s foot? My parents would say it can be!

Would you like more practical tips on developing communication and other 21st century skills with your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.