When you’re an English speaker it seems like the world is your oyster. You can travel almost anywhere and find people to communicate with, books to read, movies to see. You’ll find English speakers in virtually any international career path, in universities and corporations worldwide, programming computers and smartphones, dominating Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Yep – life as a native English speaker is full of opportunity. But if we’re not careful, it can also be full of complacency.
With over 1.5 billion speakers, English is the most spoken language worldwide. But of those 1.5 billion, only 25 per cent are native English speakers – meaning that more people have learned English as a second language (or third, or fourth…) than as a first.
About 51 per cent of EU citizens speak English – 13 per cent as a first language, 38 per cent as a second. And nearly one-third of the world’s population is learning to speak English. By contrast, 18 per cent of Americans report being able to speak any second language at all.
But if the rest of the world is learning English, why is this a problem?
While being able to speak English is great, being able to speak English and a second language is even better. Politicians, artists, technicians, scientists, diplomats, entrepreneurs – in fact, the field hardly matters – all benefit greatly from the ability to converse in another language. It’s a skill that opens a world (literally) of opportunities.
And there are other, less obvious benefits to learning a second language. Children who study foreign languages appear to perform better academically. A 2011 study found that for every year of foreign language study, SAT scores in the verbal and math portions jumped significantly. Bilinguals are better at multitasking and processing information. They also have better cognitive function – and are therefore less likely to develop diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Speaking multiple languages is clearly something we should all be doing. There’s no wrong time to do it. But the best time, according to experts, is to get in early. The earlier a child learns a language, the better the verbal fluency area of the brain restructures itself to store the knowledge. Pre-pubescent kids are more likely to be able to pick up second languages with their native accents.
Not quite convinced? There’s also research suggesting that learning a second language can help kids with their reading, as well as with their comprehension of English itself. Most importantly, learning a language is not only something children are good at; it’s also something they can enjoy. Kids love playing with sounds, discovering new ways of looking at the world and expressing themselves – and when they’re older, they’ll love the advantages their bilingualism grants them.
Encourage your students to learn another language. You’ll be giving them the world.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.