So many advantages to being taught in a second language

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 5:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 5:16pm

Regarding Julie McGuire's eloquent article ("Hurdles of learning in a second language", August 18), education in a second language brings along a host of benefits, while the negatives can easily be counteracted.

A new school does not mean one has to forgo old friendships. Some weaker social ties will naturally be broken, but only to be replaced by new and better ones. These latter will at once be instrumental in accelerating a child's progress in the second language.

With time, a child's peers are going to become increasingly important sources of influence, including linguistic influence. This is why, as time goes by, it is vital to balance the child's increasing exposure to English with upkeep of Cantonese, consistently trying to meaningfully highlight the prestige and value of the latter. This is where old school friends are helpful, but the role of the family is undeniable in fostering a strong sense of cultural and linguistic identity.

The teachers' attitude towards Cantonese is also crucial so that their behaviour is not perceived as downgrading the language's status and treating it as "inferior". This tends to happen in English-only classrooms where learners are penalised for using their mother tongue, which is why blind adherence to the "target language only" principle can be detrimental (and one of the reasons monolingual native-speaker teachers are not always the best teachers).

The benefits of acquiring and regularly using a second language are numerous. Bilingual children display manifestly better awareness and understanding of their native tongue, including development of richer lexicon, increased fluency and correctness, and more complex style of written text.

Foreign language learners also display consistent improved performance in core subject areas on standardised tests, particularly in problem-solving and maths, and develop better spatial abilities. Enhanced cognitive flexibility also means moderated perseverance; that is, they switch more easily between perspectives or tasks, and ignore distractions (which is why the risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in bilingual children is lower).

A second language leads to the assimilation of new perspectives and richer conceptual representations, including perception of one's own culture from a new perspective, enabling a better understanding of other nationalities, resulting in lessened racism, higher tolerance, and the development of intercultural competence.

When parents send their child to an international school, they should not neglect their Cantonese.

Michał B. Paradowski, assistant professor, Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw (Poland)