The Importance of Multilingualism in a Global Era

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Best to start early—in preschool—to develop an appreciation of foreign languages, cultures

By Agnes Farkas-Roszell

Bilingual TotsAmericans today have a clear advantage in that they all speak English, the lingua franca of global business. At the same time, we Americans also have a clear disadvantage in a global economy in that we only speak English. Two sides of the same coin, really.

“How is that a disadvantage?” many ask. “Foreigners all speak English anyway.”

It’s not unusual for Europeans, for instance, to study several different languages from a very early age (including English). True, the physical closeness of Europe’s many countries and nationalities forces them to learn about each other’s cultures and languages. In a sense, they need to understand one another so that they can successfully co-exist on the same continent. There’s more to it than that, though: It’s also about respecting diversity and opening communication at social, economic and artistic levels.

Yes, Americans have arguably built a cultural hegemony over the rest of the world. And English continues to be one of the most popular languages to learn in non-English speaking nations. But learning other languages is less about parsing sentences and memorizing verb conjugations, and more about reaching a deeper understanding of cultural nuances. This understanding enriches Americans’ global view and even their day-to-day lives at home.

Studies have shown that teaching languages to children from an early age is much more effective than teaching it to them later in life. Many European nations require foreign-language instruction at the elementary school level, while Americans tend not to offer it until ninth or tenth grade. Starting this kind of instruction at an even earlier age—say, at the preschool level—is even more effective.

The human brain is more receptive to language development during the years between birth and pre-adolescence. Linguists know that there is a window of opportunity that closes around the age of 8 (about 6 years before most American children even have an opportunity to study a foreign language).

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