THE BLOG

Why Bilingual Education Is Expanding Our World

13/08/2015 09:38 BST | Updated 11/08/2016 10:59 BST

"Language is wine upon the lips." - Virginia Woolf

It might seem like English is the native language of the world. Apparently, it is only the third most spoken language in the world coming after Mandarin and Spanish.

English is necessary. But to what extent? All the way? Just because something is not in every day usage doesn't mean that it is not being used elsewhere and may not one day come in handy for you.

Knowing two or more languages helps a person to develop additional literacies, whilst enhancing and enriching his own native language by encouraging interaction and communication.

Talento Bilingue de Houston and the University of Houston, a non-profit organisation, whose motto is to create Houston's Latino arts experience through collaboration, education and preservation, earlier this year announced its investment of $11 million to improve the state of education for Hispanics in the Houston metropolitan zone. These funds will target the areas of bilingual education and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Alejandra Ceja, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, said, "Investing in our Latino students is not only the smart thing to do but it is also the right thing to do to strengthen our country's economy and global competitiveness."

Time and again, it is mooted that the younger generation, when they get deep beyond the beauty of the skin of multiple languages, have proven to be agile thinkers compounded with the ability to be better resolvers. The numbers also stand to show that candidates with bilingual proficiency are taking home bigger pay checks.

What's giving them this added edge? Is it because bilingual folks are introduced to a wider orbit of philosophies, histories, multiple hypotheses from diverse backgrounds?

Two-Way Immersion (TWI), the industrial phrase, for students who are immersed profoundly in two or more languages, in the past has helped expand the horizon for students when it comes to jobs and other opportunities.

Those coming from a TWI background are outperforming their peers who also have taken up similar curriculum. Only difference being the peers were monolingual. The TWI-backed candidates also scored higher in both reading and math. A California study corroborated by demonstrating that the state's average in reading and math being around 50th percentile, the TWI English proficient students notched a surprising 71th percentile for the same categories. Socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities were no influencers here.

Children who were made to absorb a second language other than their native, have been observed to accumulate thicker grey matter in their brains. It is this grey matter that controls language and communication of an individual. Higher density = higher degree of intellect.

Bilingual brains also reduce or slow down dementia. 211 Alzheimer's patients were kept under a study in 2010. The study showed that people with bilingual proficiency showed symptoms of the disease 4.3 years later than the patients who only knew one language. Knowing a language is akin to developing a new skill. Like archery. Or playing the guitar. A new skill/language sets the motion to increase the "cognitive reserves". Better cognitive reserves suppresses the maturation of amyloid - crucial agents that help construct the algorithm for Alzheimer's.

Another study published in Developmental Science, told folk tales to 48 kids of 5 - 6 year olds. The tales were that there were English babies who were adopted by Italians. And ducks raised by dogs. Later, the kids were asked whether the English babies would grow up to speak English or Italian and whether the ducks would go on to quack or bark.

The bilingual kids said that the baby would grow up to speak Italian. When it came to the ducks, the kids said that the ducks would bark and also added that the ducks would run instead of flying.

Krista Byers-Heinlein, lead study author and a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development in Montreal, said, "Both monolinguals and second language learners showed some errors in their thinking, but each group made different kinds of mistakes. Monolinguals were more likely to think that everything is innate, while bilinguals were more likely to think that everything is learned."

Byers-Heinlein further added, "Our finding that bilingualism reduces essentialist beliefs raises the possibility that early second language education could be used to promote the acceptance of human social and physical diversity."

The importance of bilingual education has been part of political debates in both developed and third-world countries. In the USA, people are overlooking the political motives behind the need for bilingual education. As everything is being conditioned by globalisation, America is loosening its last shreds of conservatism about several different facets, bilingual education being one.

In the UK, bilingual education has been part and parcel since over the last two decades. Back in 2002, there were 47 schools that had lapped up bilingual education. Today, there is no saying how many are there.

Dr Gabriela Meier of the University of Exeter's Graduate School of Education said: "Bilingual education is based on the view that language is primarily a medium of communication, and is best learnt by using it to convey meaning. My research in London and Berlin has found that students taught in two-way programmes form a more cohesive group, with greater conflict resolutions skills. Therefore, one-way and especially two-way immersion programmes could form part of a wider language acquisition and social cohesion strategy, and should be considered by schools and policy makers as a viable option."

The 1970s had Federal Government backing bilingual syllabus in Australia. "The aims of bilingual education programmes were both the 'transfer and maintenance' of indigenous language and English literacy. Aboriginal bilingual education in Australia represents much more than a range of education programs. It has been a measure of non-Aboriginal commitment to either assimilation or cultural pluralism" - Harris & Devlin.

China's Education Minister, Eddie Ng Hak-kim, is not compromising about the move to go full-scale with English-medium-of-instruction schools. His critics are aware that such an implementation will only benefit mainstream Hong Kong and mostly nothing beyond.

The Middle East usually has two or three language programmes. Arabic is used to teach History, grammar and literature. Math and science is taught in English/French.

While urbanisation and globalisation might have made bilingualism the need of the hour, the spell of bilingual essays a cast of fear of letting go of culture.

Cipriano Mejía, an immigrant from southern Mexican state of Chiapas, constantly worries about his children Zolie, 7, and Suzani, 5, losing their Spanish roots to English once they enter school.

Mejía and his wife, Zuremia Hernandez, are migrant agricultural workers in Immokalee, Florida, US.

Mejía says, "Learning English is important in this country. But at home we speak Spanish. The oldest was at a good reading level, and she has increased it and even made the honour roll."

Bilingual education expands relations, jobs, opportunities, and possibilities. Barricades between cultures and communities are narrowed. More the better doesn't always have a favour, but when it comes to language, the more languages one knows, the better his/her head start is.