Essay on the Widespread Use of English Nowadays
Number of words: 1881
Because of the widespread use of English nowadays, a major concern in English-speaking countries is how to persuade young people of the benefits of learning other languages. To what extent do those whose mother tongue is English need to learn other languages, and what are the individual and societal benefits of doing so, or the negative repercussions of not their doing so?
Ethnologue (2015) states that English is the third most commonly spoken language in the world, after Chinese and Spanish (which is unsurprising given the plethora of Hispanic communities worldwide and the expansive size of the Chinese population. This alone represents the significance of English as a language and the prevalence of it worldwide. The benefits of learning a different language can also be inferred from this statistic (gaining a competitive edge in the employment market, in addition to becoming more of a well-rounded individual). Regardless of the benefits of learning other languages, English is the third most commonly spoke language worldwide, it could be supposed to be the most important, given that the spread of English speakers across the globe could be conjectured to be more varied than those who speak Chinese (mainly the inhabitants of China) and Spanish (mainly those who reside in Spain and the small collection of Latin American Countries). This potentially implies that, due to the propensity of English (and the fact that the majority of interactions of young people in English-speaking countries will be with others who have English as a mother tongue), the benefits of learning a different language seem to pale in significance to the influence that English has on the world. A contrary viewpoint to that could be that those who do learn a different language are in a minority of individuals, which could potentially set them apart from their counterparts (which could have employment advantages and personal benefits, which will be referenced at a later section of this assignment). This assignment will address the research question directly, adopting a critical stance on matters whilst investigating the relative advantages of learning a second language in addition to English, whilst clarifying the individual and societal benefits of doing so (in addition to highlighting some initiatives which have been introduced to endorse learning a different language).
Individual Benefits of learning another language
The cognitive benefits of learning another language seem to be bounteous. A research team from the University of Edinburgh (Bak et al., 2014: 959) discovered that learning a second language (or becoming bilingual i.e. demonstrating a proficiency in two languages) can decelerate cognitive aging, even if the second language is taken up and learned in adulthood. Of course, one could argue that this viewpoint is potentially more applicable to the benefits of adults, rather than young people, learning a second language, but the research study concluded that learning a language at a younger age can stimulate cognitive ability and longevity in terms of cognitive health and also, unsurprisingly raise academic attainment. This is perhaps one of the most commonly cited benefits of learning a second language in the literature, that of boosting academic attainment and proficiency. This indicates the benefits of learning a second language on an individual level, where one’s cognitive acumen is boosted significantly by engaging in the process of learning a second language. Proving this, Bialystok and Martin (2004) conducted a study on pre-school children which entailed them progressing through various tasks in sorting blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into 2 digital bins. The first task was relatively simple for the infants, as they were required to sort the shapes by colour, which most of the children completed with ease. However, the second task proved to be more challenging: children then proceeded to sort the shapes by which shape that they were, with bilingual pre-school children proving more adept at this task than their monolingual counterparts. Although this is only one empirical study which has referenced the cognitive advantages of young people who are ‘bilinguals’ (or in more extreme forms, trilingual individuals or polyglots) compared to those who are only fluent in one language, several other studies have come to the same conclusion, with even evidence from the study of phrenology of the brain being used to substantiate this point.
Ironically, for many years, researchers were of the disposition that learning a second language could be considered to be a barrier towards learning and achievement in education, although this viewpoint gradually changed over time with technological advances and also the proficiency to study the brain in greater depth. Bialystok (1999) talks of the concept of inhibition in terms of explaining the advantages that bilingual young people have over their monolingual peers. This was thought to mean that bilingual young people could supress (hence the derivation of the word ‘inhibition’) the habit of using just one language system, in order to utilise more of their cognitive function. Whilst this explanation is still accepted in literature as being part of the explanation for why bilinguals possess superior cognitive assets to those who only speak one language, this has actually been criticised in the literature, due to the emergence of updated research which scrutinises the brain in more depth. Recent research has come to the realisation that someone who is bilingual has an improved ‘executive’ function, which fundamentally controls our attention (Carlson and Meltzoff, 2008). The implications of this to a child’s educational experience are multiple: it allows them to concentrate for longer periods, have a greater attention span, absorb more content and also perhaps derive more enjoyment from their learning if they are more engaged and in ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), although of course this may be dependent on the ability of the teacher to initiate such conditions of flow. The individual (and collective) advantages of learning another language seem to be embraced in some quarters: in the UK it is now mandatory that children will learn a language from the age of 7 (in other words when they enter primary school) (DfE, 2014).
Bruner (1966) elucidates of the concept of social learning where people learn from each other in a socially collaborative model which consists of constructive dialogue and other such entities. Although this model was primarily applied to education, it still has some relevance in this context. It could be hypothesised that if young children (and adults for that matter) were to become bilingual, then this could allow them to have a greater understanding of those who exist in their social environment whom are drawn from a different background, race or ethnicity to them, as they may be more aware of different cultures and faiths if they aware of another language (with the potential assumption being made that if one were to become skilled in a different language, then they may become more accustomed to the traditions and culture in that country). Theoretically, this could potentially lead to ‘community cohesion’ (a term which was originally coined in the UK, which potentially means it can be extrapolated to English-Speaking countries) where the values, norms and behaviours of a country are all united and in an equilibrium, although Kundnani (2002) feels that this can homogenise culture, and be anathema to the multiculturalism in the contemporary world which learning another language supposedly allows that bilingual individual to embrace. The cognitive benefits of being bilingual have already been expressed. However, the advantages to those individuals (and organisations collectively) in the workplace may need to be considered in further depth. Even as far back as in 2002, Stanford University (2002) were advocating and promoting the advantages of becoming bilingual in the workplace, theorising that those who learn another language can make considerable strides in their career and advance to a position that would be untenable if they were not bilingual. This is perhaps digressing more to identifying the individual benefits of being bilingual, but the point seems to be evident that an institution or organisation could benefit collectively from individuals who were bilingual- with advantages including increased performance, optimisation of resources, expansion and also a better organisational culture (Schein, 1992), which could be more harmonious if the assumption that bilingual individuals are more respectful of other cultures (the workplace is likely to be an economically diverse setting) is valid.
The repercussions of not being bilingual could be manifold: not accessing the cognitive, employment and lifestyle advantages of being bilingual in today’s multicultural, multi-faith and cosmopolitan society. These benefits even extend to health: with a recent study concluding that being bilingual can even slow the onset of the debilitating disease dementia, which tends to occur when one comes to the end of their life (NHS Choices, 2013).
In essence, answering the essay question directly, it does seem important for young people in English-speaking countries to learn a second language, on an individual (cognitive benefits, potential career advancement, becoming a more mature and well-rounded individual) and societal (increased community cohesion, greater respect for different faiths and cultures and reduced discrimination towards ethnic minorities) level. Whilst learning another language may not be the most important priority in a child’s (from an English-speaking country) education (as it arguably ranks beneath improving the literary and numerical aptitudes of a child), it could still have untold advantages for them in their life and educational journey. The repercussions of not learning another language may not be felt most potently in the present era, potentially becoming stronger in the future as an increasing amount of people learn a second language. Therefore, it could be hypothesised that if a child from an English-speaking country does not learn a second language, it could make them more vulnerable in the future in their pursuit of obtaining gainful employment.
Bak, H. T. [et al.] (2014) ‘Does bilingualism influence Cognitive Aging?’, Annals of Neurology, 75 (6): 959-963.
Bialystok, E. (1999) ‘Cognitive complexity and attentional control in the bilingual mind.’ Child Development, 70: 636–644.
Bialystok E. and Martin M. M. (2004) ‘Attention and inhibition in bilingual children: evidence from the dimensional change card sort task.’, Dev. Sci., 7, 325–339.
Bruner, J. S. (1966) Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belkapp Press.
Carlson, M. S. and Meltzoff, N. A. (2008) ‘Bilingual experience and executive functioning in young children’, Dev Science, 11 (2): 282-298.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
Ethnologue (2015) Summary by Language Size. [Online]. Available at: http://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size (Accessed: 06 May 2015).
Great Britain. Department for Education (2014) National Curriculum. [Online]. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/national-curriculum (Accessed: 06 May 2015).
NHS Choices (2013) Being Bilingual may slow the Onset of Dementia. [Online]. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2013/11november/pages/being-bilingual-may-slow-the-onset-of-dementia.aspx (Accessed: 07 May 2015).
Kundnani, A. (2002) The Death of Multiculturalism. London: IRR.
Patel, N. (2003) A Holistic Approach to Learning and Teaching Interaction: Factors in the development of Critical Learners. Brunel Business School.
Schein, E. (1992) Organizational Culture and Leadership: A Dynamic View. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Stanford University (2002) Rewarding Workplace Bilingualism.