Thursday, September 05, 2013

Two is better than one.

Raise your hand if you are bilingual!

Toastmaster Chair, fellow Toastmasters and honored guests, in this country, ‘bilingual’ largely means French and English, but you may know another language other than French. I am a bilingual, having learned French and English from a young age, as have all of my cousins. I visited one cousin and her family last week-end. She is married to a monolingual man and has 2 kids with one more on the way. Early on, they have decided that the children will be bilingual even though the father misses out on half of his kids’ conversations. Why would they do it? Why would he voluntarily put himself in a situation where he might not understand his kids? Let me give you 3 reasons why, like my cousin, I feel more parents should aspire to raise bilingual children.

Research has shown that bilingual children outperform monolingual children in executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive processes such as problem solving, mental flexibility, attentional control and task switching. I am NOT saying that because I’m bilingual J! Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian psychologist and Distinguished Research Professor at York University has done extensive research on the effect of bilingualism on different aspects of cognitive development in children. She has found that being bilingual gives the individual an advantage of better attention control and therefore facilitates processing and functioning in several cognitive tasks. Imagine presenting an object to me. Immediately my brain provides the labels of the object in both languages I know. Which word I pick to say out loud depends largely on which language is being used and the appropriate word to use in the context. Constantly making the decision about how to best respond to a situation, as well as having better control over what they select, results in better performance in regards to problem solving and attention control. In other words, bilinguals are exposed to more situations where they have to make decisions based solely on the situation they are in, making them better at focusing their attention on the details that are relevant at a specific moment in time.

If that isn’t reason enough, let me give you a second reason. The American Speech Language Hearing Association promotes good listening skills and ability to connect well with others as advantages of being bilingual. Language goes beyond just a means of communication. Each language has the ability to shape an individual's perception of the world, and a bilingual's perception of the world would change according to the language they are currently functioning in. This makes them more sensitive to cultural differences hence makes them more adaptable in a social setting and more likely to make friends.
There is another strong, third, reason parents decide to raise bilingual children in Canada. In a 2007 survey, 60 percent of Canadian parents cited increased job opportunities for their children as the main reason for enrollment in French immersion schools. That is because a 2006 research poll for Canadian Heritage revealed that almost 70 per cent of Canadians felt that bilingualism improved employment and business opportunities. With over 30 countries with French as an official language and over 220 million French speakers worldwide, bilingual employees may work with multinational corporations working in or with these countries. Exports from French-speaking countries represent 19 per cent of world exports, creating a sizeable market which requires French speakers.

In summary, my cousin’s children will be better than their monolingual counterparts in executive control tasks such as problem solving and task switching; they will do well socially thanks to an increased cultural sensitivity and; they will have a better chance at landing a job when they get older. If you are not bilingual, and you are thinking right now about how to reap the benefits of being bilingual, do not despair. Since learning a new language is no small task, prove your dedication and determination, other traits increasingly valued in the globalized world, by picking up a new language now.