Before the 1960s, it was thought that the human brain didn’t fare well if such an unnatural thing as a second language was stuffed into it – children particularly would get confused when trying to learn another tongue, it was assumed, and would inevitably lag behind their monolingual peers emotionally and intellectually, what with all those foreign words bouncing around their poor heads.

Teacher Regina Castle (facing camera, at right) and language assistant Yue Qi teaching the Mandarin language at Waikanae Primary School.

Today we know that the human brain is a bit more sophisticated than a bucket: it doesn’t get ‘full’ and start overflowing. Most, if not the vast majority, of neuroscientists, education researchers, and behavioural psychologists agree that there is solid evidence for a very positive upshot to learning another language – and the younger you start, the better.

If that’s true, then we need to ask ourselves the obvious question: do we need to do more to make language learning available to all Kiwi kids, especially those of primary and intermediate age?

The benefits of multilingualism can be grouped broadly into two camps: cognitive – much modern research has shown that people who speak more than one language seem to have a mental dexterity that monolingual folk don’t; and social benefits – basically, it seems pretty obvious that if you speak another language, more of the world is open to you.

First, let’s take a look at why it seems likely your child will get a cognitive leg-up from learning a second language. Here are a few of the research-backed benefits:

  • Academic achievement: Several studies have shown that bilingual students get better results in standardised tests. In one study, a random group of Year 5 children in the US who were given immersive Spanish lessons three times a week performed noticeably better in language skills and maths.
  • Multi-tasking: A Pennsylvania State University study showed that multilingual children, because they are better at switching between languages, are also better at prioritising and juggling multiple tasks. The author of the study, Judith Kroll, is satisfyingly empathic as to the study’s results: “The belief [used to be] that people who could speak two or more languages had difficulty using either. The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you.”
  • Memory: Not surprising really, given that bilinguals need to retain twice the vocabulary as everybody else: studies have shown that bilinguals are better at things like retaining shopping lists and directions. Google ‘semantic memory in bilinguals’ for a deeper dive into this one.
  • Improved decision-making: A study from the University of Chicago has shown that bilinguals make more rational decisions, perhaps because they can think over any decision with twice the reasoning power.
  • Better verbal skills: several studies have shown that learning another language develops general verbal skills.

The above are just a few of the benefits of multilingualism that research has highlighted. No less important are things such as improved English literacy and comprehension; becoming better at observing our surroundings; and even a diminished likelihood of suffering from Alzheimer’s in later life.

All of this exciting, positive stuff comes with an important asterisk, as noted by Judith Kroll of Pennsylvania State: multilingualism doesn’t mean your child will get smarter, or become a better learner. It just means that your worldly (and wordy) offspring will “acquire specific types of expertise that help them attend to critical tasks and ignore irrelevant information”.

So that covers (very simplistically) the purely cerebral advantages of multilingualism. Beyond mental agility though, there are a whole raft of possible benefits that should be discussed, that perhaps aren’t as easily measured, starting with the intuitively obvious idea that if you speak more than one language, your ability to make the most of our globalised world is clearly enhanced. We asked a number of experts and ‘on the ground’ educators for their thoughts.

The teacher teacher

Jae Major is a senior lecturer from Victoria University’s education faculty. She’s been a primary school teacher here and overseas and has been preparing teachers for the classroom at several universities since 1995. She lectures on subjects like intercultural competence, and preparing teachers for diverse classrooms. Does Major believe that primary/intermediate-age kids should learn to speak another language?

“Yes they should,” is her unequivocal answer. “I published an article earlier this year which talked about the hegemony of English and monolingualism. It’s quite common in English-speaking countries to have that monolingual mindset, because it’s the international language. People kind of go, ‘oh, I speak English; that’s spoken everywhere, why do I need to speak another language?’

“The research is absolutely compelling. It’s long, it’s wide, and it comes out of all branches – education, sociology, neuroscience. Aside from everything else, you learn to understand your first language better – you improve your skills in it – when you learn another language, and there’s research to support that as well.

“When you learn another language, you gain insight into the cultures that use that language, and so you become more open-minded, you become more able to negotiate and navigate meaning. You gain things like persistence, resourcefulness and empathy; you gain insights into other world views, and other cultural values. You actually learn about yourself, and you get a better understanding of your own culture, and your own values. It’s not just about the cognitive gains.”

The linguistics expert

John Macalister of Victoria University’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies has conducted research into second language reading and writing and issues around language learning and New Zealand English. “Should primary-age children learn a second language? The simple answer is yes,” he says.

“Let’s just look at it pragmatically. New Zealand is a fairly monolingual country – around 80 per cent of us speak only one language, English.

“And yet if you flip that around, 80 percent of the world doesn’t speak English at all. In today’s world, that has implications. We have lots of reports and data that talk about the employability advantage of knowing another language. About two or three years ago, the ICT industry published a report that talked about the huge demand for applicants who can speak multiple languages. If I remember rightly, they talked about a ‘scramble’ for people who had those skills.

“In the world we live in, developing an understanding of other cultures is an advantage as a human being, I think. The results of bigotry, hatred, and xenophobia all come from not understanding other people and their culture. I think that’s a fairly powerful argument for learning another language, and especially at a young age.”

The ALLiS coordinator

Elizabeth Couchman, a teacher at Waikanae Primary School, coordinates the ALLiS project for the Kapiti region cluster of schools. ALLiS (Asian Language Learning in Schools) is a Ministry of Education initiative that funds schools to strengthen new or existing Asian language learning programmes. Her job is to liaise with 23 Mandarin teachers and eight Japanese teachers who work among the 10 primary schools under her jurisdiction. These aren’t specialist language teachers; they’re classroom teachers who have volunteered. They’re supported by professional development both in the methodology of language teaching, and of course the teachers are learning Mandarin and Japanese themselves at the same time. Couchman says that their focus on learning Asian languages has given teachers tools that apply more widely than expected.

“One of the big benefits that our teachers have discussed has been the spillover into the teaching of te reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language, and that’s really exciting – because of course the pedagogy [method of teaching] is applicable across any language.

“An important thing for our schools is that our students now have that confidence in terms of global citizenship – they’re comfortable and happy in communicating with people from other cultures, people who are different from themselves.”


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