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The impacts of multilingualism

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, 9 October 2013


"Speaking multiple languages, it seems, makes you better at other languages, and also, potentially, more creative and better at mathematics, science or history."

The Australian Government’s Australia in the Asian Century white paper sets out plans for the languages component of the Australian Curriculum to enable all Australian students to learn a language other than English. A curriculum for Chinese (Mandarin) is one of the first in development. Frazer Cairns, Head of Dover Campus at UWC South East Asia, discusses the latest research into multilingual learning for children, especially those at international schools.


While multilingual education dates back to ancient times, until recently multilingualism has been seen by many education researchers as an exceptional, even hazardous, phenomenon.

Trying to learn a subject using a language other than that spoken at home (for example, learning science in Danish rather than English) was cited as the root of a number of difficulties, including cognitive overload, semi-lingualism and language confusion. It was thought that using more than one language to learn was, essentially, bad for you.

This point of view has profound implications for international schools, where a potentially large proportion of the community is learning through a language other than their home language.

Thankfully, educational research now sees multilingualism as a potential asset, providing learners with a strategic, significant advantage. Speakers of multiple languages learn further languages more easily and seem to show a better understanding of the nature of linguistic structures.

According to Laurent Gajo, a professor at the University of Geneva, empirical research shows that multilinguals ‘know things’ that transcend the purely linguistic level. In Gajo’s view of learning, the different languages interact and combine to generate an original, individual, complex competence on which the user may draw, rather than simply welding together two monolingual halves. Speaking multiple languages, it seems, makes you better at other languages, and also, potentially, more creative and better at mathematics, science or history.

Learning while using a language other than your home language is not easy nor will it yield instant results. Though many children pick up basic language competencies relatively quickly, the more specific language demanded in an educational setting takes longer to acquire. Indeed, most students will initially see a drop in their overall performance as they try to adjust. Much also depends on personal factors, such as motivation, the child’s communicative needs and levels of anxiety. However, in the medium term, the drop is usually compensated for, and a multilingual child regains their age- appropriate progress – and often surpasses their monolingual peers.

Going back to the concerned parent: should you, then, speak to your child in, say, Mandarin at home if it is not their mother language? The research is clear: no. For a child learning in a second language it is vital to maintain their mother tongue. Skills acquired in the first language can be transferred to the second language so, for example, if your child has developed good reading skills in English or French, she is likely to be able to apply these skills when reading Korean. Other transferable reading skills are the ability to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from context and being able to plan a piece of writing or develop an argument in a persuasive essay.

Educational research has generated its fair share of false conclusions—playing Bach to your children does not necessarily make them better at maths, despite the claims made in some studies. The factors that generate the positive consequences of multilingualism are not yet fully understood, and much depends on personal factors. What is clear is the importance of the strategic and transferable skills that multilingualism can bring to children as they face a complex and rapidly changing world.


Frazer Cairns
Head of Dover Campus at UWC South East Asia

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Tags:  Education  multilingual  Singapore  southern star  United World College 

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