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Monolingualism Can Be Cured

Wednesday, 14 June, 2017

Language is a tool to unlock the world; we need language to construct meaning and, through communication, find our place in the different societies we are part of. The more languages we speak the more doors we can open, the more opportunities we discover.

Still, many parents are worried when they move abroad. The fear is that their child’s language development will suffer, when he/she is exposed to one or two new languages. Often they are simply not aware that monolingualism can be cured! Monolinguals are a world-wide minority. Only 40% of the current world population are limited to one language. Speaking two or more languages is actually the norm.

Language is a large part of our identity and embodies our cultural heritage – represented in currently 6000 languages spoken all over the world. According to UNESCO, 30% of these are in some form endangered with nearly 5% extinct since 1950. So preserving your mother-tongue (or better: home language) is of paramount importance.

But then … add a second, third language! Not least because it will increase your child’s chances on the job market. Just taking the US as an example, the demand for bilinguals has nearly tripled on the labour market between 2010 and 2015 (source: World Economic Forum). Billions of people are learning a further language. Charging from the popular app Duolingo, English is the most popular second language learned throughout the world, followed by French and Spanish. Looking at the number of native speakers, Chinese is the biggest group with nearly 1.2 billion speakers, followed by Spanish (399 Mill.), English (355 Mill.) and Hindi (260 Mill.).

In this scenario, you will want your child to have a good start. Myths of the past that bilinguals develop schizophrenia and more have all been proven wrong – on the contrary: the bilingual brain is more agile, bilinguals develop Alzheimer’s disease 5 years later than monolinguals (nothing you would worry at your kid’s age), and earn up to 7% more than those who are limited to one language only (Canadian data).

In case you already speak two languages at home because your partner comes from a different background, that’s indeed a good start - but it is also a tough phase you will have to go through: from birth onwards, you should make sure that each of you only speaks their own language to/with your child. Difficult not to give in but the reward is a child who by the age of three or four has acquired without effort the basics of two languages already. Consistency is the key. Even if you consider your languages as minority languages in this world, which may have not much use for a future career on the first sight, don’t let the family heritage die out and compromise on e.g. English – English will come soon enough. Books, songs, stories are key for mobile families to ground their children in culture, not a plot of land. Moving around, this family culture will stay with them and with you. An apartment can be rented, but not cultural heritage.

In an international school, you are offered further opportunities. You will not only find the specialists for language acquisition and language learning, you will also discover that in quality schools, all teachers consider themselves as teachers of the language of instruction (usually English). In addition, most good schools offer instruction in the host country language from an early age on. This helps with the integration outside the school. Good schools will, from Primary levels onwards, pay attention to the development (and structured learning) of an academic language, so in the long run, essays on a higher level are made possible and the plateau of just communicative language can be overcome. And all of this should be backed up by mother-tongue lessons, as much as possible.

We don’t know a lot about the future of our planet – but surely, more languages will still mean more chances, still in 2050.