In order to understand the specific benefits of a bilingual education, it is important to note some very obvious realities about the process of being able to speak multiple languages. The connections to the studies will be apparent, and then we can gain the critical insights to the benefits.
First, there has to be a foundational language to learn. Whether that language is English or Chinese, alphabet or ideogram, an object or concept is attached to an associated word. For example, a crayon in English is a waxy coloring instrument while in French it is a pencil. The word is the same, the pronunciation is different, and the meaning completely different.
Next, there are some words that do not directly translate from one language to another. For example, more primitive languages do not have words or concepts for modern technology and have to be explained at length in the original language. In two way communication, whether spoken or written, this can cause considerable difficulty.
Idioms and regional dialects can be added to the mix, but it is clear that being bilingual requires considerable brain power. Now let us consider the process.
A person whose native language is Chinese and is speaking with an English person hears an English word, and then their brain begins searching for a Chinese symbolic equivalent. Once that connection is made, then the person searches for a way to respond in their native language, translates that the best they can into English, and then respond appropriately. This becomes second nature and is done so quickly that the bilingual person is thought to be fluent.
Attention is one benefit for bilingual speakers since they must focus on what is being spoken or written to accurately understand the intended message. As has been noted earlier, being bilingual requires a significant amount of brain power (not to be confused with being “smart”) and there are studies that indicate bilingual people have reduced instances of dementia at an older age. Given what has just been said, this makes perfect sense.
Social skills are improved as in trying to understand the basic message that is being communicated, the bilingual person has firsthand knowledge of the difficulty and is more likely to be empathetic towards others.
A natural outgrowth of improved social skills and empathy are an increased ability to accept diversity and differences within the culture. In most cases, admitting that a difference in native languages demands an increased effort to communicate fosters an acceptance of not only language differences, but cultural as well. At the same time, it should be noted that it is not necessary to give up one’s own language or cultural to accept the differences in others.
All of these relatively obvious facts spur the question – Why isn’t bilingual education an integral part of primary school? Basic linguistics show that people begin losing their ability to learn a new language starting at age 7. By age 50, it becomes very difficult. One of the reasons is that the brain has become conditioned to understanding the world around them through the limits of their native language. It can be compared to “hard wiring” of the brain that will take considerable time and energy to unlearn.
While Cantonese and Mandarin remains to be the primary language for many of the local schools in Hong Kong, parents still do prefer their child to be bilingual and to learn English. Parents typically rely on tutoring centres to help their child learn and master English. Monkey Tree English Learning Center provides interactive and fun English courses to students ranging from 3 – 12 in a small classroom environment.