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In praise of multilingualism

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Language learning and cultural diversity are two dimensions of what we bring to school; but two, I am afraid to say, of the most underdeveloped and mediocre. But why? Shouldn’t there be better ways to support second language learners, and if so, how might we deploy the capitol of children’s multilingualism in the teaching and learning process?

You learn a lot by observing young learners at work.

In the final weeks of the last school year, I asked a class of third-graders to research second languages. They did massive class-by-class questionnaires and gathering of data. They asked their classmates these questions: How many languages do we speak as a community? What languages do you speak at home and what are they? They came up with 24 languages: Vietnamese, Hindi, Russian, Chinese, Turkish, Portuguese, Italian, French, etc., and we are a small school of 400 children.

From a fairly straightforward research project that was ostensibly a language study incorporating math skills and applications, interviewing techniques, data gathering and representation, children received a sense of identity as second language speakers. What is more, as a school it gave us data, the kind that has value to help us think about how diverse a language community we are and what the teaching and learning ramifications might be.

There is a significant connection between multilingualism and becoming a global citizen (worldly) — both are connected and interdependent. What we see in the rest of the global world are ambidextrous young learners for whom multilingualism is the key to community. Music is one of those ambassadors. The New York Times published an article in the spring extolling the value of multilingualism for its organic relation to brain growth. I would like to proffer, with humility and urgency, my own set of reasons, based on empirical evidence and the veracity of 57 years of fieldwork:

  • Learning a second language is a tool for appreciating ones native tongue as much as, if not more than, learning a new one. The awareness of syntax, vocabulary and grammatical structure move from the unconscious to objects of knowledge.
  • Knowledge of a second language is a gateway to cultural awareness and sensitivity. It is not merely words, expressions or verb conjugations that we learn, but an entirely new and different way of looking at, organizing and perceiving the world. It breeds a mindfulness that broadens how we see others.
  • When we risk ourselves to learn another language, that vulnerability opens us to growth and new experience. Learning another language is also a tool for developing habits of critical thinking, as an opportunity for examining and comprehending our own culture with more depth and insight.
  • Utility. In many parts of the world, children speak at least two languages, and often more. If being global is about the capacity to understand, respect and communicate with others who are different, then aren’t we committed to this outcome with the same level of intentionality we invest in becoming competent in math or science?

So let’s get to it. Mandarin clubs. French clubs. Italian, Hindi and Dutch. More hours of Spanish instruction from first grade onward that sensitizes and familiarizes children to another language. We should be doing it everywhere — after school, before school, in libraries, museums and airports, wherever there are adults and children. Students who speak more than one language are quite simply better prepared to face the polyglot world of the global village. Because whatever it means to be educated in a global world where the boundaries are blurred and new modalities for communicating require adaptiveness and openness, hablando otro idioma will be central to success.

David Penberg is an urban and international educational leader. Most recently he headed Stevens Cooperative School as an interim, and prior to that he was head of school at the Benjamin Franklin International School in Barcelona and head of studies at the American School Foundation in Mexico City.