Bilingualism is the ability to use two languages with equal fluency, and to sound like a native in both. Young children are naturally designed to acquire what ever language(s) they are regularly exposed to. Although adults can study a second language to a high, even fluent, standard, they rarely manage to avoid a foreign accent. That’s why true bilingualism has to start early in life – and why you don’t need to be ‘good at languages’ to be bilingual.
The language you speak is closely bound up with your sense of identity, and how you view the world: being bilingual can make you feel at home in a wider set of social situations, and can give you two slightly different ways of looking at things.Even where two languages are quite similar and you can function perfectly in either of them, things feel different in different languages. Robin puts it like this: “I feel a slightly different person speaking (or thinking) German than English – like everything’s slightly more focussed.”It’s rare to come across people who are not glad to be bilingual. Letizia in West London says that her children “are very proud to be half English and half Mexican and to be able to speak two languages.”Web reader Sandra sees practical benefits too: “I’m quite proud of being able to speak and understand Polish, as I know it will help in the future – now that Poland are part of the EU, maybe more people will learn it.”Speaking two languages is thought to increase cognitive abilities. In other words, bilingual children often get better marks! Bilinguals are more employable, and earn more on average than monolinguals. They’re even healthier in old age! A study at the University of York in Canada in 2004 suggested that speaking two languages can help keep you mentally agile. Bilingual volunteers had faster reaction times than their monolingual counterparts and were less likely to suffer from mental decline in old age.Bethan from Llanrug believes that bilingualism for its own sake is positive: “Children who are raised in a bilingual household are proven to do better at school as well as being more tolerant of diversity and minorities. In today’s climate this can only be a good thing.”New parents who are considering bringing their offspring up to be bilingual will find plenty of information and advice on the internet. The excellent Nethelp site contains a wealth of invaluable personal experience and handbag.com has a guide to the different approaches.If you’re only fluent in one language and are feeling jealous, don’t despair. You don’t have to be fully bilingual to feel the benefits of a second language. Harpal Singh from Glasgow was inspired to learn Gaelic by the late Radio Scotland presenter, Ali Abbasi: “Learning Gaelic makes me feel more Scottish and I recommend that everybody at least tries to pick up a few words. Tapadh leibh!”
Are we really a multilingual nation?
You wouldn’t know it at first glance, but the British Isles are home to over 350 languages. Some of them, such as English, Irish and Manx, originated here; most of them began elsewhere and have arrived through migration.
While most speakers of other languages also speak English, some do not. We’re lacking concrete statistics about language use, but according to one 2001 estimate, one and a half million people in the UK do not speak enough English to be employable. It’s very hard to get along without English, although we do have certain rights to use other languages in public life.The Human Rights Act (1998) guarantees liberty and a fair trial. That’s relevant because it means that suspects must be told why they are being arrested or charged in a language they understand. They are also entitled to free assistance from an interpreter in court.But what about the everyday stuff? The Human Rights Act does not entitle pupils to education in their own language. It doesn’t ensure patients understand their doctor’s diagnosis. It doesn’t help non-English speakers report crimes, attend parents’ evenings or fathom tenancy agreements.Deaf people are better off than most in this respect, since anti-discrimination legislation gives them more rights to use BSL in public. According to the Act, disabled people (which, in law, includes Deaf people) may not be treated unfavourably because of their disability. This means that in many circumstances, companies and organisations are obliged to provide BSL interpreters or other means of communication in order for Deaf people to access services.Web reader Richard Jones believes that there should be a BSL Act equivalent to the Welsh Language Act (1993). Under the latter, speakers have more solid linguistic rights.The Act guarantees that Welsh and English be considered equal in the provision of public services in Wales. And Language Schemes ensure that people can do certain things such as applying for a passport or receiving healthcare in the medium of Welsh.Speakers of other languages of the British Isles, such as Bengali or Chinese, don’t have legislation to help them use everyday services. Yet people whose first language is not English commonly communicate better and feel more at home, less frustrated and less marginalised when they speak their own language.Nava Freeman wrote to Voices to explain how this feels: “When I speak Hebrew my confidence rises, because it’s my mother tongue, and no one looks at me in a strange way!”Farzaneh from London agrees: “I am comfortable [speaking Persian] and enjoy many things which I can not still feel and understand in English.” Abhinav Kishore adds: “Speaking Hindi unifies our community and we feel more relaxed.”As many of you have testified, the British Isles are undoubtedly multilingual, but people who do not speak English or Welsh do not enjoy the same linguistic freedoms as those who do. The British Council website has an excellent section on multilingualism, if you’re interested in finding out more.
While academics and researchers are contributing valuable work at the higher level of education policy, the real situation on the ground in Britain is far from ideal. As an independent language tutor based in the North of England, I cannot say that finding hordes of local adults who are keen to learn a language is easy. But the silver lining is clearly showing. Despite a lack of reliable statistics on adult learning in the UK, my anecdotal evidence has been encouraging. I regularly find people fluent in other languages, adults who tell me excitedly about their years spent living and working abroad.
Initiatives like Routes into Languages provide an excellent push to encourage young people to take up language learning, but there is a huge deficit in the education opportunities open to the working population. The self-improvement and positivity drive that many adults experience in the United States is not as visible on British shores, and sadly language learning still has not been recognised as what it really is — a path to personal growth, increased intellectual power and much improved employability at any age.
The key to boosting Britain’s multilingual advantage lies in boosting the status of multilingualism itself, making it clear that personal growth, enjoyment and happiness are part of what language contributes to the learner’s life. This move forward should be lead by the most qualified educators and most enthusiastic employers, bringing more language events to the population, boosting export, travel and independent education from providers serving the adult workforce and make a difference to the skills on offer today, and not in 20 years.