Is being bilingual a must in today's society? Which language should my child learn?
World educational standpoint
The United States of America is one of the few countries in the world that does not require its citizens to be taught foreign languages in primary school. In most industrialized countries, students in the equivalent of first or second grade are taught English, and are required to take another (third) language in the equivalent of middle school.
Benefits of learning a foreign language
Learning a foreign language develops a sense of multiculturalism, empathy for new language learners, general listening skills, an interest in other cultures, and improves self-awareness.
Multiculturalism is the idea that all cultures have something to add to the whole. Learning another language opens up more communication, enabling a better understanding from within the culture of what that culture views as important. Words reflect the culture. Certain words in one language may not have a direct translation into another language, so learning that word brings out a new set of meanings the other language does not incorporate.
Language learning develops empathy by requiring the learner to start over from the beginning building sounds, letters, words, sentences, into paragraphs and stories. The learner realizes how thoughts are put together, rather than just assuming that everyone thinks fully-formed sentences.
Each language has its own distinct sound set. Languages are acquired by listening closely to pronunciations, paying attention to verbal cues, and mimicking the sounds the learner hears.
By learning a language, communication pathways are opened up between learners and people fluent in the language and culture. This creates a bond between the learner and the culture.
In learning a language, the learner explores what it means to be themselves, what it means to speak a language, what it means to be part of a distinct culture.
Benefits of early foreign language acquisition
Children are most open to learning, because their brains are constantly developing. The brain learns more information during the first few years of life than during the rest of life put together. As well, babies are born able to distinguish the sounds of all languages. The sooner someone is exposed to different sounds and different languages, the less effort is needed to produce those sounds and languages.
Choosing a foreign language
When choosing a foreign language to learn, choose one that is relevant. This can be what is most commonly spoken in your community (besides your native language), a family language, or one that someone close to you speaks.
When teaching a child a language, the best choice is one that you yourself speak. If you speak only your native language, choose a language that can be taught by a fluent speaker of both your native language and the target language.
The more opportunities the learner has to listen to, read, and speak the target language, the more learning will take place.
I am trilingual American English, Norwegian, and German. I grew up in a bilingual English/Norwegian household. From the time I was born, my parents chose one or two days a week to speak to me for a few hours in Norwegian. The rest of the time, they spoke to me in English. I had English and Norwegian books, some dual-language books, some one or the other language. I learned songs and fingerplays in both languages.
When I started school, I also started formal Norwegian class, a child in with the adult beginner class. By the time I was in high school, I was teaching the beginning adult classes.
My high school would not count my Norwegian as a foreign language for credit, because it was not taught in my school. So, I took three years of German. My Norwegian background helped immensely with learning the German language, and I tested out of college German with just the high school background.
I have not kept up my German, but I still remember enough of it to translate the occasional letter and e-mail, or converse for a short time with travelers. I have kept up my Norwegian, still teaching classes in it to adults and to children, as well as talking with my family.