Bilingualism*

Consensus on what bilingualism means is hard to come by. At the very least, we are all a little bilingual; expressing ourselves using different registers within the same language is in itself a form of bilingualism (using ‘friend’ rather than ‘mate’ for example). At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who say that being truly bilingual means having identical aptitudes in two languages (e.g. having the exact same reading speed). That type of bilingualism is exceedingly rare; people usually always have one ‘stronger’ language.

For the purpose of this letter, I am going to go with a definition that is acceptable to the majority: being bilingual means having the ability to interact (listen, understand, speak) not only in daily life situations, but also in abstract ones (doing mathematics, identifying what is implicit in a text).

That definition of bilingualism is par for the course at the Lycée français; those two capacities are the very things we aim for…and achieve. Our students’ combined French Baccaluréat and International Baccalaureate results demonstrate it clearly. But please take note, we are not reaching these bilingual (or in some cases multilingual) objectives by magic. Firstly, it takes know-how; our French-English programme has been in place for 10 years and our expertise in the area is tangible. Secondly, it takes children’s brains! A child would not be able to make room in their head for three languages if it was physiologically impossible.

Neuroscience research is unequivocal; children’s brains are in fact physiologically formed for the learning of languages. We are, all of us, equipped with an internal learning algorithm; that of children works tremendously fast and it really comes into its own when they are learning languages.  They have a prodigious capacity for memorisation and classification, which allows them to learn several languages at once.  Even more astounding is the fact that their internal algorithm continues to work when they sleep, reinforcing what they have learnt during the day.

What experts tell us is not, as I sometimes hear, that children are going to struggle from learning so many languages, but in fact the very opposite – that they should be learning more languages younger! The question is not really does bilingualism work – children’s brains are designed for it – but rather how as a school and how as parents should we make sure that we doing our best to support and ‘feed’ the process. That’s where our know-how and expertise comes into play and that is where the French Section can help!  

Have an excellent weekend

*Please note that I am leaving the cultural aspects of bilingualism to one side and am solely concentrating on the linguistic side of things.  

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