Many people lament the fact that they never learnt a second or third language when they were younger; the benefits of being able to speak isiZulu, French or Chinese are often apparent only once we are older and wiser; however, learning a language as an adult is no easy task.
The best time to acquire multiple languages is during the developmental years of early childhood; research supports this and is overwhelmingly in favour of exposing children to multiple languages as the benefits extend far beyond merely speaking and understanding more than one language.
Dr Robyn Moloney, a multilingual expert at Macquarie University, states that children have the ability to understand and use multiple languages without inhibition or confusion, and with a perfect accent. Dr Robert DeKeyser, professor of second language acquisition at Maryland University, agrees that children who are exposed to more than one language in the formative years are able to obtain a level of fluency that becomes increasingly difficult as the child gets older; this enhanced ability to learn a new language declines dramatically after the age of 6.
The benefits of multilingualism on a child’s cognitive development are as bountiful as they are undisputed among linguists and child development experts. Multilingual children consistently outperform their monolingual and bilingual counterparts in areas such as divergent thinking, concept formation, general reasoning, verbal abilities and listening skills. Children that learn multiple languages during their formative years also develop an enhanced ability to acquire other languages later in life.
There is a great deal more to language than grammar, phonology and syntax. Etiquette, body language, attitudes and other aspects of human behaviour are just as much a part of a language, and it is often these unwritten rules that allow real communication to take place between people from different cultural backgrounds. Children that have been exposed to multiple languages develop a sensitivity and understanding of different cultures that is rare in monolingual children.
In the world that our children will live and work, the inability to function in two or more languages will be viewed in much the same way as illiteracy has been viewed in the past. Multilingual abilities will open up opportunities that would otherwise not exist. It is already evident in the working world that multilingual people are favoured over monolinguals in many roles.
Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming research in favour of educating children in a multilingual environment, schools and parents have been slow, or even reluctant, to embrace the multilingual philosophy due to misconceptions about how languages are acquired and competition from other activities and subjects believed to be more important.
When an attempt has been made to teach children a second or third language, the results have often been poor due to second languages being introduced too late in the child’s development, a lack of real exposure to the target language, ill-equipped schools and teachers, as well as a poor example from older generations.
This leads to a cycle of monolingualism that becomes harder to break with each generation. Although South Africa enjoys a wide diversity of languages, if we do not promote multilingualism as part of our children’s development we are en-route to becoming a monolingual society and losing the benefits that come with multilingualism.
Even where parents and educators agree on the importance of multilingualism, deciding which language to invest in can be difficult. South Africa alone has eleven official languages and the recent growth of developing economies has added a wide selection of languages to an already daunting list. When looking at the cognitive benefits of multiple language learning, it does not matter which languages are learnt. Socially, it makes sense to invest in a language that will be used in day-to-day life and economically, you might consider a language that will open up the widest possibilities or gain you entrance into the narrowest niche in the world of business and work. All languages are important in their own right.
Following years of research and development, LinguaMites Multilingual School is the first pre-school in South Africa to exploit the valuable, but very small window of opportunity to become multilingual by creating an environment where children are exposed to three languages in a fun, non-threatening environment while receiving a quality pre-school education. LinguaMites believe that, given the innate abilities of our children, it is a waste to teach them in a monolingual environment.
As a starting point LinguaMites have selected three languages that they believe will be useful to the next generation of South African children. Their language programmes include ChinaMites (Chinese), ZuluMites (isiZulu) and AngloMites (English). These languages represent three completely separate language groups, and sit at interesting cross-roads both socially and economically. Each of the three languages are facilitated by native speakers in a dedicated space where only the target language is spoken; teachers convey meaning through actions and demonstration, in the same way that a native language is acquired. Children enjoy learning through culturally relevant songs, games and stories, and are exposed to the appropriate behaviours, etiquette and table manners. In this way they gain a unique identity within the culture and a deep understanding of the people that actually speak the language in everyday life.