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Does the future of education lie in bilingualism? Is it even possible?

Hi everyone, I have been pondering for some time as to the role of language in cross-cultural interactions. As a bilingual, I have had the privilege of conversing across cultures to try and understand people from different perspectives. To me, language isn't just a medium of communication; it is a passport that grants people access to cultural knowledge.

I am also keenly aware, however, that imposing mandatory learning of a secondary language on the masses will provoke resistance and discomfort. More importantly, it seems to me that most people speak and think in a master language; that is, the language that they use in daily conversations, and the medium from which they interpret the sciences and the humanities. In that sense, few people can claim to be equally fluent in 2 or more languages.

So it is both uncomfortable and difficult to introduce bilingualism/multilingualism en masse, which leads me to some huge dilemmas:

Should we teach all children 2 languages?

Do you think it would eventually result in some form of cultural erosion as one's original master language is less spoken?

Would we end up in some sort of grey area whereby many children who cannot cope with bilingualism retains no master language at all?

And finally, would a bilingual world be a better place? (Forget world peace, what about cultural diversity??)

  • Dec 6 2011: There is too much emphasis on competence in a particular second or foreign language, when we would get much more out of the knowledge and skills that allow us to acquire competence in any language. I prefer to see the teaching of the general science of linguistics as a core component of social studies. Morphology, phonology, syntax, pragmatics...its a very rich domain to explore. Our goal should not be to prepare little Jimmy for the civil service exams or for a job at a Denny's in East LA; our goal should be to enrich Jimmy's mind.
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    Dec 3 2011: True bilingualism is very difficult. I, like many of my former classmates, have had an entirely bilingual education. But, the issue is that of the "master language" people keep talking about. Few and by that I mean one person in 23 in my class, I would judge to be truly bilingual. This person had two mother tongues, so to speak, parents being one french-speaking and the other english-speaking. She took classes in english and french at the highest level in high school and is now pursuing legal studies in both english at french. Yes, she's truly bilingual, but she's the only one. All my other classmates including myself, although fluent in more than language, eventually 'chose' one dominant language. I put chose in quotation, because the choice is more of an indirect one. It depends on what language you choose to explore art, what language you use to communicate, what language you use to satisfy your curiousity, what language you can express yourself more easily in..etc.

    Now I don't mean to undermine bilingualism in any shape or form. I just wanted to make it clear that even if you teach two languages from kindergarten it doesn't mean the kid will become truly bilingual. What is more important though is that the kid will adopt a more international view of himself and the world around him.

    Look at it this way. Language is part of an individual's national identitiy. This identity is based on a collective set of values, experiences and behaviours termed culture that use language as a vehicle for sharing. Bilingualism can help break this construct of national identity and build one of international identity. When you start having more than one national identity, you realise the dilemma. One may be incompatible with the other. The construct collapses and one is forced to look beyond nationality.

    What if bilingualism stopped people thinking in terms of 'Us' and 'them' and instead encouraged thinking in terms of 'We'...?
  • Dec 7 2011: Psycholinguistics research have suggested that children who are bilingual develop at a faster pace than their monolingual counterparts. I believe in bilingualism, and lament the fact that except in particular parts of the anglo-american world, the rest of the world is almost always somewhat bilingual.

    From a linguistics/language acquisition perspective, it is rather preposterous to suggest that "many children who cannot cope with bilingualism retain no master language at all". I feel I have to call you out on this point-- to be able to acquire a language (whatever it may be, even if it is a colloquial or basilectal variety of a particular standard, say, Singlish in Singapore) is biologically ingrained in our humanity. Unless a human being develops a specific language impairment, or grows pass the critical age for language aquicitation (12-15 years old) without contact with other human beings/society (and hence language), everyone is capable of acquiring at least one spoken natural language. Children are shown to be remarkably able to discern different language codes, and growing up a simultaneous bilingual (as I have) would not pose a developmental problem to a normal child.
  • Nov 30 2011: I simply wish the US in particular would become as demanding of multi-lingualism as other cultures. You could not force students to be bi-lingual because you could not force them to choose what other language they "should" know. But, language classes should start in the elementary grades rather than wait until high school. Our ethnocentrism in this country closes us to really expecting people here to be bi-lingual when we really should be.
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      Dec 1 2011: I'm curious . . . in the U.S. our borders are with Canada (English speaking . . . well, no, French, too) and Mexico, Spanish speaking. Are you suggesting that we offer perhaps French and Spanish in the elementary schools before we have taught our children to master our spoken and written language?
      • Dec 1 2011: Lynn
        That would precisely be my recommendation. Children have a remarkable ability to separate and learn simultaneously both of the languages. Just because my son said agua before he said water does not negate that.
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        Dec 1 2011: I think that's a great idea!
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        Dec 5 2011: Yes that would be a good idea.
        Here everyone learns English next to Dutch and after elemetary school a third language of choice is added to it.
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      Dec 1 2011: I also agree that language should start at a younger age. Bilingual kids find it easier to learn more future languages. But who would teach it, there are not many bilingual teachers that i know of. The education system is also a mess right now.
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      Dec 1 2011: Does anyone on here think about implementation? What are we going to stop teaching children so that we can teach them two languages? When you add an hour a day minimum to an elementary school curriculum, and expect every student to participate... Don't you end up losing technology, or math, or literature, or art time, that often you hold so dear?

      I don't mean to be rude... I just mean it's not a world where you can just add hours into what we force our kids to learn... So in order to propose bilingual education, you need to propose what you're willing to give up... If you really want to force every American child to be fluent in another language, despite the fact that economics have virtually forced everyone to learn English... You need to say lets replace music, or math... and that's harder to say.
      • Dec 2 2011: David
        I agree that with present curriculum demands adding another language seems daunting, but doesn't all this begin with revising what we wish taught to our children. Yes, I believe math, science, and reading are important. Yes, they should be skillfully taught. But acquiring another language is adding not just another skill set, but the potential to add a whole new dimension of life to all of our children. That is more important than the Three "r's".
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          Dec 2 2011: I think, more and more I'm coming to agree with you. I really think America, and Europe, both need to start reorganizing themselves around what I call "A brain pump mentallity, rather than a brain drain mentallity". Where we're sending our best and brightest into places that need help, and skill. That requires bilingual education. I think it can be really usefull.

          I just think it's really important that we remember each thing has a cost... What's most likely to go? Music... Literature... I can live with that. Lots of people can't, so I think it's important in the framing of these arguments to suggest what we're willing to restructure, at the same time as we suggest the new paradigm, just so it stays fair to people who love music education.
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        Dec 3 2011: I don't see why something needs to go.

        If that's the case then in all bilingual jurisdictions students must be learning (something) less. That didn't happen to me, my wife or our son, nor I suspect to anyone else who is bilingual.
        • Dec 4 2011: John and David
          I don't think anything necessarily has to go, but the problem again is thinking about what our educational system should do, not just what it does. I would hate to see music, art or even PE get thrown out. I do believe however that children given the opportunity could be completely bilingual.
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          Dec 4 2011: Fair enough... I would however argue, that America, in particular, has always valued, if not in my opinion, over valued its emphasis on arts and creativity. That's one of the touchy feely differences between us and most cultures, and I don't think most people reallize that other cultures often are forced to give that up, without even thinkin about it, so they can learn English, for economic reasons.

          Also, I assume in Australia it was a choice to be bilingual, I want us to produce more fluent bilingual children, I'm just not convinced making everyone participate is the right way to go. Also I think time is lost teaching a second language, that could be used to teach something else. We could save time, from inefficiencies in our system, but that would still be free time we're choosing to spend on a second language, rather than going even further overboard with arts and creativity. It will still be a choice of how we use our time, and we should appreciate that if we're considering forcing it on people.

          I actually may disagree with the premise. I actually may, truly believe we should come up with one awesome language, that takes the words English doesn't have a word for, and brings them in, incorporates them into a "master language". Or I might be for a unified language, I sit on a razor's edge on that one intellectually, so I'm probably more sensitive to the time choice argument, I still think it was a fair argument to make. Things take time, we're talking about resource allocation, not creating resources out of thin air.
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        Dec 5 2011: David, my family and I live in Australia, but we're Canadian, that's the source of our bilingualism (plus a third language for both my wife and I).

        As such, it goes to my point that learning two languages in school did not nor does not take away content from anything else. If it's skills that we value then learning a second language is not an impediment, the learning of another language is a mental skill on its own.

        If any two distinct educational jurisdictions were compared, there would be multiple subjects within the curriculum that were unmatched, or covered to different degrees, and yet most students from all jurisdictions come out similarly, as my wife, son and I can attest, and so too can most students from Europe.

        I'm more than happy to have a debate (but not here or now) about what should be cut or reduced within any particular jurisdiction. As a physics teacher there are many topics that I would love students to learn, but choices must always be made, some content will always need to be set aside.

        The skill of learning another language should be a value on its own.

        Thank you, and Michael M, for your responses.
        • Dec 6 2011: You are welcome. This is a crucial topic for the future. The US has to break out of some of its ethnocentric molds.
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    Nov 29 2011: I grew up speaking Spanish at home, and I learned English at school. I am fluent in both languages. My husband grew up speaking Icelandic at home, and he learned English at school. He is fluent in both languages. Our five year old daughter is now being exposed to our languages, and she is learning Mandarin as we now live in China. Our hope is that she will be fluent in all languages, but most importantly that she learn and share the diversity of the different cultures we are exposing her to.
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    Nov 29 2011: Firstly, we shouldn't force anybody to do anything.
    Secondly, even if there would be "cultural erosion" (which can be seen as a minus), the plus of getting to know more about another culture balances things.
    Thirdly, "no master language at all" can be replaced by "master bilingualism". I say it wouldn't be a grey area but a colorful one.
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    Nov 29 2011: I am also bilingual but curiously so. I was born and first learned Telugu (a South Indian dialect). At around 3 or 4 I could speak very fluently and well in it. At the same time I joined pre-school and learned English. Today I am a master at English and I use it to communicate effectively. I can express myself in it perfectly as it is truly my mother tongue. I am still fluent in Telugu but I lack the vocabulary and proper grammar to communicate anything but simple day to day talk.

    What is truly strange is I think I am a master at English because it was wired into my brain second. I approach it in a more "proper" way.

    Anyway that background was just so I could say this: I think it is *very* important for people to be fluent in two languages. I am unsure of where you are from but here in northwest Indiana it is required that we take 3 years of one language or 2 years of 2 languages (other than English) to graduate.
  • Dec 10 2011: Hi Ethan!
    I think you have some interesting questions!
    I am living in Belgium which has French and a Dutch speaking part (and a small German speaking part). The source of my bilingualism (Dutch/French) is the fact my father is from the French speaking part of Belgium and my mother from the Dutch speaking part. At home we speak French and I studied in Dutch.
    I am very happy to be bilingual and I encourage everyone to educate his children like this. It is so easy! Just enroll them in a weekly activity at the youngest possible age in another language and you will see how fast they speak the language.
    Here in Belgium you face difficulties finding a job if you are not bilingual, especially in the capital of Belgium; Brussels!
    I lament the fact that in Belgium the educational system is not completely adjusted to this Belgium labor market.
    I think Language classes should start in the early elementary grades because young children have a remarkable ability to learn languages.
    Here in Belgium, the learning of the second language (French or Dutch) usually starts at the age of 10. Which I think is quite late. It should start at a much younger age in an interactive way.
    It has also been proven that bilingual kids find it easier to learn more future languages and children who are bilingual develop at a faster pace.
  • Dec 5 2011: You said that to you, language can deepen your understanding of specific cultures. This is a view many people would tend to disagree with. Nowadays, as English is becoming more global, language is viewed increasingly as a means of communication, rather than a necessary tool for obtaining certain knowledge. Speaking different languages can certainly make you understand how other people think a lot better, but the significance of using different languages can be a controversial issue. I myself grew up speaking fluent English and a Slavic language, learnt another Slavic language at a young age, and eventually learn German and French. Even though in the past I saw language as something special, or as you put it, ''a passport that grants access to cultural knowledge'', today I see language as a means to an end, a way to pass on information, not as an end in itself, not a necessary key to a culture. Learning more languages at a young age can, however, significantly improve certain areas of the brain which would otherwise remain dormant, giving an individual more potential in life. In my opinion, people will tend to become more bilingual, with English being the other language, thanks to the internet. Native English speakers lack the incentive.
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    Dec 3 2011: Interesting… just thought I would share a few points myself.

    No country has so far succeeded in getting its entire population to be bilingual while some have failed. It seems to me that the conventional wisdom that everyone can learn more languages without making sacrifices is, well, wishful thinking (no offence…!)

    There are all kinds of unintended side-effects that result from a bilingual policy. In Singapore, we used to have 2 language bases: one spoke Chinese dialects, the other spoke English. I grew up in the former, speaking Chinese at home while switching to English at school. Due to the unique language base we have, the mixing of Chinese grammar with English resulted in the creation of a colloquial English dialect – commonly known as Singlish.

    Also, the initial failure of our bilingual policy in teaching Mandarin (Mainstream Chinese) in the 1970s was attributed to Chinese dialects, and radical steps were taken to discourage the use of these dialects. In this sense, trade-offs were indeed being made. I have also heard of stories where elders who could only speak dialects could no longer communicate directly with their grandchildren because of that.

    Interestingly, even state ministers protested against the incipient steps of bilingual education. I think people were convinced of the need for bilingualism on an intellectual level, but emotionally, it was a different matter. (not to say that the emotional argument is of secondary importance)
  • Dec 1 2011: I believe being multi-lingual would help you learn about the cultures of the particular languages you speak. However, I don't see this as the future of education, unless the entire world aspired to be anthropologists.

    Unless you are using this as support in that being multi-lingual would help the world share its ideas and innovations, but even then you would probably lean towards a "universal" language.
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    Dec 1 2011: I have a friend who's little boy is now 4. Since birth his mother has talked to him in English and father in Spanish. At four he now understands as much of both languages as if he knew only one. This will give him a portal into the culture of his father. As when he travels to Mexico he will be able to freely converse with the locals and fully immerse himself in the culture.

    I think that it becomes tricky when you look at teaching all kids a language. I learnt Italian in primary (K-6), French in high school (7-10) and mandarin in university for 2 years and now can't speak anything but the most basic of basics.

    I understand the point but I also think that there is also a lot to be said for language differences. I am an avid traveller and love learning little bits of different dialects as i travel. The only problem i can see with teaching every child to speak english, french, spanish and mandarin is that we may lose some of our dialects and along with that a whole culture which is associated with that.

    Maybe I am also scared because this is exactly what has happened to a large proportion of indigenous culture in Australia. Westerns came in and taught the classics to an entire generation who lost parts of their cultural upbringing. These parts have been lost forever as there isn't a written language for many of the dialects and even in a small area you can have 7 or 9 different and distinct dialects.

    Finally there is also something to be said about other international languages such as music, dance, photography, hand gestures and even the simple smile.

    It's hard not to smile at someone who walks past you smiling because it is the international symbol of happiness. Now there's an idea worth sharing.
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    Dec 1 2011: Why not more...!?
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    Dec 1 2011: I know 3 languages - English, Russian and Hebrew and I live in Canada, so my mainly used language is English, Russian is at home with my family. Russian is 99% spoken, very little written or reading in Russian, I left Russia 20 years ago so its kinda tough. Hebrew - I use even less, only when I chat with my friend from Israel.

    Now my view on languages, in order for the world to communicate efficiently and effectively we all should adopt Esperanto. Every single school in the world teaches Esperanto and the local native language. Every single person in this world would be able to go anywhere in the world and communicate with every person they meet. I dont see the downfall of the idea.

    You want to study, in addition to your native language (ie French), German - go ahead why not. But you still know Esperanto which gives you the basis for communication. Is it a language that would be able to enrich you culturally about every single country - no. But it would guide you to the right direction and give you a base in learning the country's native language.
  • Nov 30 2011: I would prefer not to call it "force" children, but I would call it just do it. I believe that everyone should be basically bilingual. Children should be taught dual languages. I do not care which two!

    As far as cultural erosion goes, yeah maybe, but might we not all be better off if children of a whole generation suddenly slipped their feet into another culture's shoes?
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    Nov 29 2011: I don't know whether universal fluency in multiple languages is practical. I think the language requirements that are common for children in school, which are not aimed at fluency but rather at basic reading and conversation, are very valuable and that languages are typically introduced with exposure to culture.