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Is being bilingual a must in today's society? Which language should my child learn?

Updated on July 21, 2009

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.

The author in her bunad, the Norwegian national costume.
The author in her bunad, the Norwegian national costume.

My experience

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.


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    • Annabelle74 profile image

      Annabelle74 6 years ago from San Francisco and New York

      This is such a great hub. Certainly the best foreign langauge to teach your kids is the one you speak at home. However if you dont speak a second langauge, then it would be wise to enroll your kids to learn the one that is most geographically useful. For instance, in America, it would be great if Spanish were mandatorily taught in all schools. I would certainly want my children to learn Spanish so long as we live in the USA.


    • SOKCGOLD profile image

      Robert Pfromm 8 years ago from Lees Summit, MO

      If you have family that speaks another language, that would be one of the languages I would want my children to learn, since so much of who we are is influenced by culture, and I would want them to be able to understand where their family is from.

      If that isn't a consideration, I would look to see what sort of foreign language community is nearby. Learning any language is great, but to REALLY get good at it, you need practice, practice, practice. For that reason, Spanish seems a good choice. Besides, that's the language that the vast majority of people in the Western Hemisphere speak, so you are more likely to get a chance to use it.

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      interesting hub, and I agree with you.

      I did French and German at school (and Latin, but that's a bit different!), and wish I was better at more languages.

      We are bringing our son up to be bi-lingual. I speak to him in English, and his Abba speaks to him in Hebrew.

    • muser profile image

      muser 9 years ago

      It's great being multlingual. You can savour music in so many different languages. :)

      Wonderful hub KT! In today's shrinking world (thanks to the internet) it is handy to be conversant with more than one language.

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 9 years ago

      Most Indians are multilingual...we grow up learning at least three languages. While we tend to take that for granted, people from other countries are often amazed at the ease with which we move from one language to another. :)

    • blogging2 profile image

      Rebecca Jones 9 years ago from Florida

      It is great that you have a family heritage behind you! I worry because my husband and my self grew up not knowing any other language and I feel it has become a kind of detriment to us, we don't have family who speaks another language (nearby or otherwise) so I am trying to learn as I teach my daughter, I am sure she will pick it up much faster than me! I have also read that it is easier to teach them young than when they are older. Thank you for the information!

    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 9 years ago from Northern California

      I took German too, but sometimes I wish I took Spanish instead, since I live in California, AKA Mexifornia :P