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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).



In fact, humans begin to lose the ability to distinguish the sound system of different languages at about the age of two. This is why and how foreign accents develop. The later one is  exposed to a language, the heavier the accent is going to be. But before the age of 2, a child can learn languages easily and naturally, just like they learn to speak their own native language. Babies are mesmerized by the sight and sound of a foreign language speaker and their brains are like sponges absorbing it all. Essentially, babies and toddlers struggle to communicate with their parents and teachers without giving much thought which language they have to do it in.

More importantly, as long as children are exposed to another language early, their brains have the ability to store the language’s different sounds and they can pick up the language again later in life, perfecting it and coming close to a native-speaker level.
 
Foreign-language study is also excellent for the developing brain in areas unrelated to communication. Studies have shown that children who study a second language do better on math, vocabulary and social study tests. Exposure to a second language increases the ability to look at problems in many different ways. It makes you understand that there is more than one way to evaluate something, and there is also more than one solution.

Our children today are the business people, teachers, writers, artists and politicians of tomorrow. Looking at your own children, you can see the future of our country—and you can shape and influence that future by giving your children the right tools to lead with.

Making foreign-language instruction an integral part of our children’s lives, and encouraging an appreciation and reverence for other cultures will make them naturally more inquisitive, tolerant and understanding. It gives them a true advantage in our global world.



Agnes Farkas-Roszell is the president of Bilingual Tots, a total immersion language school for children ages 0-5 that presently offers courses in German, French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, English as a Second Language, and Tibetan with native teachers. For more information please contact Agnes at 303-561-1900 or visit www.bilingualtots.com on the web.


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