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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.

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


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Speaking in the monolingual classroom

Group of adult students talkingMike Boyle has taught English to adult learners in Japan and the United States, and is now a materials writer in New York City. He is the co-author of the Starter level of American English File Second Edition. In this article, he shares his thoughts on creating effective speaking activities for monolingual classes.

We often hear that people who have a lot in common tend to have the best conversations. But if you teach a class of learners who all have the same native language and all live in the same town ­– and maybe even work at the same company – you’ve probably noticed that this isn’t always true.

While some monolingual classrooms are vibrant, chatty places, others can be quiet and awkward. Here are a few of the main reasons why this can happen and some ways to address the problem.

“We’re all the same, so there’s nothing to talk about.”

This is a common feeling among learners in monolingual classes. Unfortunately, some teaching materials worsen this problem with questions that assume an international classroom, for example, “What’s the most popular festival in your country?”

For a speaking activity to succeed, learners need to feel that they are saying something truly interesting that their partner doesn’t already know. In monolingual classes, this means choosing, writing, or adapting speaking activities so they are local, personal, or elicit differences. For example, the ineffective question above could be changed to:

  • What do you like about the New Year holiday? What don’t you like?
  • What’s your favorite holiday? Why? Is there a holiday you dislike? Why?
  • How does your family celebrate the New Year? Do you have any unusual traditions?

“I can’t explain it in English. Why can’t I just use my own language?”

This often happens when learners feel they have something interesting to say but lack the words to express their ideas, or don’t know how to pronounce them.

Before you set up a speaking activity, make sure students have the language they need to do it successfully and – just as importantly – feel confident with the pronunciation of that language. You could start by building up a list of relevant language on the board, for example, and practicing the pronunciation. (The Vocabulary Bank in American English File Second Edition is also a great reference for students to have nearby as they speak).

Also, it’s important to pre-teach not only topic-related vocabulary but also expressions for things like deciding whose turn it is, politely disagreeing, building consensus, adding a related point, and of course, describing something when you don’t know the word for it.

“It’s embarrassing to speak English with my peers.”

All learners need to overcome their fear of mistakes in order to succeed. This fear is often greater for learners in monolingual classrooms, perhaps because their speaking partner might be their friend, neighbor, or work colleague.

It’s essential to help students get over their fears and get them talking. Remind them that the only way they will ever learn to speak with fluency is through practice. It’s like learning to drive. You need hours of practice before you can drive confidently. If students are learning English in their own country, probably the only place where they can get effective face-to-face oral practice is in the classroom.

In addition, there are things teachers can do that will lessen the fear of making mistakes in any classroom, whether it is monolingual or multicultural. Let your learners know that the main goal of speaking activities is to build fluency and confidence rather than develop accuracy. Avoid correcting mistakes during speaking exercises unless communication completely breaks down and students need help getting the conversation started again. If a number of students are making the same sort of error, you might want to address that later, after the activity is over, without saying which people made the error.

To hear more from Mike on how to get students talking in the monolingual classroom, sign up for one of the following webinars:

  • 26 September 2013: 12:00 BST (07:00 New York / 08:00 Brazil / 20:00 Japan)
  • 27 September 2013: 16:00 BST (11:00 New York / 12:00 Brazil / 00:00 Japan)

Register for the webinar now!