Let’s learn a new language

by Lynda Hawe
Communications Officer, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), Directorate for Education 

How many of you have experienced while travelling, in a country which hosts a foreign language and a different culture, the desperate need to wholeheartedly express yourself?  As frantically you watch your intrigued interlocutor return your inadequate efforts with blank looks of total incomprehension! Then, with the support of some friendly smiles, warm gestures and some very theatrical hand waving motions, suddenly the situation eases and you feel a connection, even if you’re still not completely understood!

The language assets of a country, as well as the language components of human capital of individuals, can provide to be of a comparative advantage in our globalising world. Visibly, globalisation transcends time and geographical barriers as well as political and social ideals. It also enhances the blending of cultural elements, such as music, languages and cuisine.

Currently, the use of more than one language is no longer exceptional – over six billion people in the world speak an estimated six thousand languages.  Moreover, as UNESCO explains, there are many endangered languages with the risk that the disappearance of these unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge.

Amazingly, for early infants simple gaze following is a crucial developmental component because it enables language learning and their acquisition of new skills via imitation and instruction, as explained by Dr. Meltzoff of the LIFE Center at a recent CERI and New Science Foundation (NSF) conference during his presentation on Social Cognition and the Early Years.  But it’s never too late to learn a new language; a current project on brain function investigates how mastering of multiple languages can have profound effects on our cognitive abilities, extending beyond social and communicative benefits. Bilinguals outperform monolinguals in a variety of tasks that are cognitively demanding, such as those drawing on executive processes such as inhibitory control and working memory.

Consequently, nothing is more fundamentally connected to education than language. And isn’t it just amazing how languages issues manage to arouse such strong emotional reactions? Positions in the various debates on languages in education can also have strong political consequences. Even in the scientific community research findings and scholarly arguments are transformed easily into causes that appear to need to be vigorously endorsed. The strong emotional and political loading of language issues in education can be explained by the rapidly changing social context in which old concepts seem to clash with the exigencies of newer ones.   For example, in the United States at the Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, located in Indianapolis, Indiana there are 59 languages spoken among the student body.  Here they have found that many children from other countries are quick to learn English, but communicating with their families is often a much bigger challenge.

The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)’s upcoming book “Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding” demonstrates how issues concerning languages in education are undergoing profound transitions as a consequence of globalisation, migration and changes in modern societies.  This book will look at the big questions of language diversity around the world and its relation to education learning.  Since learning a new language is not only a means to improving communication, but more importantly a way to promote global understanding.

Given that culture and language are inextricably intertwined, learning a language necessitates familiarising oneself with a new culture. This gives us the unique opportunity to step outside our familiar scope of existence. It allows us to view culture’s customs, traditions and norms as well as our own value systems through the eyes of others.  Does this understanding promote appreciation of cultural differences, which in turn creates more tolerance and thus a better appreciation of others? People often express a perceived positive and productive change in their identities as a result of experiences with other languages and cultures.

Learn more:
OECD work on Globalisation and Linguistic Competencies
OECD work on the brain and learning
Activities in the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) 

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Photo Credit © dihrespati

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