Why it is important to teach your child multiple languages early in their lives

“We know that two languages are better than one for children’s cognitive development”, a simple but powerful statement in a recent publication by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. There have been many opposing views on the benefits of second or indeed multiple language learning at an early age, but the greater body of research would suggest that the benefits of learning a foreign language extend beyond the ability to communicate in another language.
Research shows that children who can speak more than one language at an early age, have improved overall cognitive abilities, which has a positive impact on other areas of education and results in higher achievement in the core subjects of Mathematics and reading. Dr John Williams of The University of Cambridge says that, “For children, such ‘implicit’ language learning seems to happen spontaneously in the first few years of life; yet, in adulthood, learning a second language is generally far from effortless and has varied success.” At Hartland International School, we focus on the delivery of Arabic from Foundation Stage, introducing four other optional languages from Year 2 when research suggests the brain is most receptive to a third language application. But with new technologies and translators in App formation, is there a need for the hours of practice and learning that second language acquisition entails?
Simply put, the answer must be a resounding yes: the learning of languages improves brain functionality. The ability to switch seamlessly between languages tends to make multi-linguists good multi-taskers according to a study from Pennsylvania State University. Research from the University of Chicago indicates that learning other languages improves native language speaking and communication skills, as the understanding and manipulation of grammar and sentence structure enables greater fluency in the home language.

Cognitive neuropsychologist Jubin Abutalebi, at the University of San Raffaele in Milan, explains that not only are there social benefits to multi-language learning, but brain imaging tools show that there is a physical difference in the brains of bilingual people who have “significantly more grey matter than monolinguals in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)…”. He says that the ACC is like a “cognitive muscle” meaning that the more that we use it, potentially, the cleverer we get!

Many countries across the world have more than one official language. In my home country of Ireland, though predominantly an English speaking country, the learning of the Irish language remains compulsory in our schools. It inherently protects our culture and heritage and in recent years, there has been a huge revival in its use and learning in a Celtic revival of “Gealscoil” (Irish language schools) across Ireland. Similarly, here in the UAE, the vision of the Rulers also aspires to protect and promote the heritage and beauty of the Arabic language. One might ask whether we are foolish not to take advantage of this opportunity to learn a new language whilst living in the region.

In a world where our children may face the challenge of changing employment landscapes at a speed that we can hardly begin to imagine, we can only assume that the dexterity and ability to speak a variety of languages can only further aid career opportunities in the future. The predilection for travel, whether for pleasure or work, coupled with a shrinking world as communication and technology puts us just milliseconds apart, means that perhaps there has never been a more important time for us to encourage the acquisition of language learning for our children.

In an increasingly interconnected world, perhaps children who learn multiple languages would develop greater empathy and curiosity for other cultures and ideas. Their preparedness for their place in global society as adults would be more assured. Having the ability and willingness to engage with many different kinds of people could help society in better understanding and addressing the many global challenges that the present and future face. Through languages we might break down the bias and prejudice that threatens society so often and engage in a different type of dialogue: a new dialogue of multi-linguists that transcends boundaries enabling our children to build their own brighter future.

Fiona Cottam
Hartland International School

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