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The benefits of being bilingual

One hundred and fifty years ago, a number of Welsh pioneers left Wales to set up a new life in one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth: Patagonia in Argentina. They did it to safeguard their language and culture because they believed that Wales was gradually being absorbed by England.

The Argentine government gave them an area known as Bahia Blance where they could retain and preserve their language, culture and traditions. To mark the 150th anniversary, BBC’s Huw Edwards has made a programme in which he meets their descendants and asks what remains of the culture their forefathers wanted to safeguard. Until 16th June, you can watch it here.

Today, Welsh is still widely spoken in Bahia Blance and Welsh customs are very much alive and well. But what I find is even more interesting is that people with absolutely no Welsh background are learning the language because there is a general view that being bilingual is beneficial.

I’m bilingual and, while my first language is English, I was sent to a Welsh-speaking school at the age of four by my parents and I completed all my education through the Welsh language. At secondary school, my favourite subjects were French and German and I ended up doing A Levels in them. I often wondered if having learnt another language at such a young age had made me more open or adaptable to learning others.

Previously, it was believed that second language acquisition from a very early age could affect the child's mastery of their resident country's language.  However, new research has shown the complete the opposite to be true. Having taught many children who speak two languages fluently, I have to agree.

So what are the benefits of being bilingual?

  • Bilingual children normally grow up in two different cultures which helps them to be more tolerant and respectful to diversity. They will be open minded and easily adaptable to changes in terms of routines, food, different environments, meeting new people. 
  • Research show that bilingual children have good reading and concentration skills, process information more efficiently and easily and think more creatively than children brought up to speak one language.
  • Billinguality enhances mathematical skills, in particular mental arithmetic, and improves memory.
  • Being bilingual increases employability - in an increasingly competitive world, having another language is certainly an advantage and many multinational companies demanded proficiency in at least one foreign language.
  • Speaking two languages is a brain work-out.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health
  • Over a long period, billinguality can protect against Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

I spoke to linguist Maria Del Mar Sanchez Bermudez about the advantages of learning a language early. Her four year old Carmen attends our Bristol Perform classes and is fluent in both English and Spanish.  We discussed the benefits of being bilingual but also spoke about why there isn’t more emphasis in our education system on learning languages. She says:

“Less and less students are taking languages for GCSE and A levels or studying languages degrees at University. Language departments in secondary schools are becoming smaller and in some universities are closing down. Whilst in other European countries, the complete opposite is happening.

In an attempt to reverse this, in September 2014, the government made languages compulsory in primary schools for children from Years 3 to 6.  But some people feel that it’s not working that well. Many primary school teachers don’t have the expertise and confidence to teach languages and it is not their priority. What’s more, more money needs to be invested in training and resources to make it work properly.

Evidence shows that children learn a language better when they start young and it can also help their conversation and literacy in English.”

So is language-learning elitist? My daughter learnt French in her private nursery from the age of three but, in her state primary school, she won’t start till she’s seven.  If you can’t afford after-school language clubs, are your children being unfairly disadvantaged?

If you have experience of living in a bilingual household or were bilingual as a child, I would be really interested to hear your opinions and thoughts on this.


Leave a comment

    From Philip Anderson
    Diddorol. I'm English but learnt Welsh when I lived in Wales. My wife is Brazilian but descended from German immigrants . I speak English (and some Portuguese) with our baby, she speaks mostly Portuguese. We live in London and most of our friends are international and multilingual, so in this circle it's normal.
    At school I didn't learn to speak a language, although I could read French and Latin (very useful as a foundation for language learning); the motivation wasn't there.
    From Adriana Cartade
    Gabriel (who attends Perform Fulham) and his brother are bilingual and I agree to all mentioned above. They are not only respectful and kind to other nationalities but also curious. They both are very interested in French and Spanish, which are easier to learn once you speak any other Latin language (they speak portuguese) and they have a very good ear for music , which I heard could be related to bilingualism too. It did not take them any longer that other kids to learn English. So I can only say that it is a big advantage and definitely really good for your brain!
    From Sophie Huang
    My 8 year old son grows up in a trilingual household. He attended German kindergarten and from reception on, has been in a state English primary school. Today, he reads, writes and speaks fluent English and German in addiition to some Mandarin. He understands Cantonese, though he would rather reply in English. Since Year 2, he has been on the top tables in every area at his primary school. Last year when we applied for a place in the German School, he was placed 1 year above his peers. He passed every level of his ABRSM violin exam with distinction (2, 4 and 5) and is now playing Grade 7 pieces. He was rejected from private schools in the 7+ exams though because I think they only look at English and Math results. I think that speaks for the value English schools place on foreign languages (and other areas)....
    From arancha bueno
    Hello, I am bilingual and run a bilingual household. Was raised bilingual as I went to an English school in Spain where we were only spoken to in English and spoke Spanish at home. I now run Fable Languages in Tunbridge Wells. sere I and a group of teachers, teach languages to all ages. My youngest student is 2 and a half at the moment and my eldest is 85! I have plenty of students that come from bilingual households were the none English speaking parent is struggling to kept language going.
    I have been teaching languages for the last 15 years and talk a lot about this with other bilingual parents. I know the introduction of languages at primary school is poor at best! the teaching is poor, mostly as languages cannot be taught like all other subjects, and therefore you need experienced language teachers to do so. It is something that I find extremely frustrating as it is precisely those early years when language systems are sedimented in our brains, pathways are formed, and the ability to engage with languages is established.
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