Mind Your Languages

Why should anyone learn a foreign language? While living abroad, I can say that one thing I regret is not learning a second language. There are so many benefits to learning a second language. Such as connecting with people from different cultures, traveling, building multitasking skills, and increasing brainpower. According to The Telegraph on Benefits to Bilingualism, physiological studies show that speaking two or more languages is an excellent asset to a person’s cognitive process.

When I grew up in the US, I often wondered why should I even bother learning a second, or even a third, language because everyone around me spoke English. This excuse stopped me from learning a second language. As I got older, I came to realize how important it was to speak more than one language and how I was at a disadvantage compared to those who were multilingual. Being multilingual would help me connect with people in different parts of the world.

Ethnologue, a linguistic website, states that currently there are roughly 6,909 languages spoken across the globe. I can only speak one. The majority of people that I have encountered through my experiences overseas can speak up to two or more languages. Since teaching in Asia, I have discovered that the majority of my students speak more than one language, especially within their homes. Regardless if a child is able to speak more than one language, I believe that it is very important for the child to have a strong understanding of their native tongue, before learning a new language.

I am a huge advocate in encouraging my students to speak in their native language (or “mother tongue”) at home. “Mother tongue” means the language that the child first learns at home. Children growing up in a bilingual home may speak two mother tongues. Once the student’s mother tongue is strong in reading and writing, he or she would be able to pick up another language and make better connections. It is easier to teach them multiple languages simultaneously at a young age. The child’s first language is critical to that child’s identity and culture, which makes them who they are as human beings. For instance, if we look at the perspective of home building, we can ascertain that the foundation is the most important part of the home. The same applies to language learning. Indeed, a child’s first language is the foundation of the house. Before he or she wants to learn a new language, the foundation needs to be built first.

When students attend school where English is the language of instruction, their minds often switch from their native tongue to English and vice versa. Through observation, I have seen many of my students switching from their mother tongue to English all the time. As a teacher, I encourage my students to exchange conversations with peers in their native language during break times at school. I support this because it may relax their brains from the amount of new information in English that they are learning in school.

Learning a new language is indeed a challenge and quite time-consuming, but very rewarding. As someone who grew up speaking only English in my household, learning a second language was extremely difficult. Now that I have been learning French for almost a year, I can see the difficulty of switching back and forth from my native language to French. I am not quite fluent in French yet, but I look forward to the moment when I finally am. It is also a good way to exercise my brain and improve my memory. There are similarities between the French and English languages, such as the grammatical structure, the alphabet, and the commonality of words; this helps me grasp the language a little bit easier.

Naturally, by teaching in an international school, there are learners where English is an Additional Language (EAL). I have gained more of an understanding of how my students feel learning a second language. Having that same familiarity of learning a new language, I feel that I have been more understanding with where my students are coming from when they come to my classroom to learn. In return, I try to learn some of the students’ native vocabulary and then we try to make those connections together.

Therefore, I encourage anyone who speaks one language, to try to learn a second. I encourage my students to keep speaking in their native tongues as they are learning new languages at the same time. I often tell my students how being multilingual can be a huge advantage in their lives. Language development is a process of both maturation and experience. It may take a couple of years to become fluent in a new language, but it’s never too late to start learning.

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