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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??)


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  • 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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