More is more – the advantages of multilingualism

| September 18, 2010
By Jaco Kruger

In an education environment shaped by 11 official languages, the issue of multilingualism is a concern for schools and parents alike.


Should the former opt for a safe option of an education that offers a Home Language and a First Additional Language only? Would the latter prefer that their children learn as many languages as possible?

At SAHETI School, pupils are exposed to four languages: tuition is in English, Greek is a compulsory subject (at different levels and catering for all needs and abilities), and there is a choice between Afrikaans and Zulu.

In addition, pupils who demonstrate a willingness to take an additional language as an extra subject at Further Education and Training (FET) level are encouraged to do so. Survey findings reveal that there are vast intellectual, social and intrinsically personal advantages to a
multilingual childhood environment.

Current research findings dispute earlier viewpoints

Early misconceptions regarding multilingualism and bilingualism were based on rudimentary research, which suggested that introducing additional languages in childhood would hamper cognitive development and inhibit the development of the dominant language. By the mid-1990s, accountable and proper scientific research had dismissed these viewpoints and today, especially in countries where multilingualism is actively promoted, most linguists and educationalists hold an opposite view.

Apart from the obvious advantages of being able to communicate in another language, multilingualism provides children with an enhanced understanding of the workings of language, such as grammatical patterns, vocabulary and decoding of new or foreign technology. Children exposed to a multilingual environment also have high spatial capabilities, sharpened memory skills and refined problem-solving capabilities.

Benefits are even extended to the development of children’s dominant language: for example, if English is the home language and a child learns additional languages, her vocabulary base in English is significantly larger, making her a more efficient communicator. Certainly, children will not become competent in one language to the detriment of another.

Learning more languages aids creativity

In today’s world where there is a growing focus on creative thinking, it is interesting to note that pupils who are exposed to a multilingual environment are more comfortable engaging with creative thought. Furthermore, they display a superior performance in evaluating hypotheses. I believe that the ability to learn more than one language is an innate capability. Yes, for some pupils, learning a second, a third or even a fourth language can be a challenging task, but the reason for the difficulty is not necessarily a cognitive challenge. And even with marginal success in learning a second or third language, the advantages are substantial.

On a social level, multilingualism exposes one to other cultures, which promotes acceptance, respect and embraces diversity. What can be more valuable in a rainbow nation such as ours?

Jaco Kruger is the Director of Student Affairs at SAHETI School. Contact him at jkruger@saheti.co.za

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