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Growing up in Canada, learning French is a mandatory part of the curriculum - a few of the basics, at least. Comment ça va? Où est la salle de bain, s’il vous plaît? Ring a bell?
While some people may not see the usefulness in learning a second language, there’s actually a lot more to it than just knowing how to ask where the bathroom is on the off-chance that you take a trip to Quebec and can’t find anyone who speaks English.
“I often hear from students and parents that French is the least priority subject and ‘why bother’ learning it when English is becoming the language of the world, and real-time translators are getting better every day,” said Kristy McElroy, a French as a Second Language (FSL) teacher at Aberdeen Hall Preparatory School. “As a French teacher with a degree in biology, I am fascinated by the links between second-language learning and brain function - and I can confidently say that it is definitely worth bothering!”
Here are a few ways that learning a second language can positively impact a student’s life for years to come.
Learning a second language definitely does some interesting stuff to the brain, including protecting it from future ailments.
“There is evidence now that learning a second language can delay the onset of neurologic diseases such as dementia and Alzheimers by as much as five years,” said McElroy. “It has also been shown that the brains of multilingual people have a higher density of grey matter.”
“Learning a second language creates connections between both adjacent and distant neurons, creating more complex brain circuitry,” added McElroy. “This complexity is protective to the brain. As neurons lose functionality with age or disease, alternate pathways can maintain those functions. The more pathways created, the greater the protection.”
What if there was one thing that you could learn, that would make almost all other types of learning easier? Well, that’s exactly what practicing a second language does.
“As students learn French in my classroom, they activate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex every time they switch between languages,” said McElroy. “Since this area is also used for executive functioning, I know that they are improving in areas outside of language learning, such as problem solving, switching between tasks and focusing while filtering irrelevant information.”
“This means that learning a second language makes my students better at math, for example,” added McElroy. “As they learn the skills of thinking around unknown words, those same brain connections will be used in mathematical problem solving.”
Speaking a second language not only improves multitasking skills, but assists learning in a variety of other subjects thanks to the unique connections that are made when a new language is learned.
“Second language learning actually supports learning in all other academic areas. It will support reading and writing in English because as they learn to add increasingly complex grammar in my French class, they also gain understanding of how their first language functions, increasing the complexity of their writing and reading comprehension,” said McElroy. “As they gain appreciation for the cultural and historical links between words, they apply these links in Social Studies classes when discussing how cultures are linked.”
Traveling to a foreign country is, of course, much easier when you know the language. While knowing how to communicate the basics is important, learning the language more in-depth can offer incredible value.
Many second language programs also discuss the history and culture behind the language, which not only offers insight into another way of life, but teaches cultural sensitivity, as well. This knowledge, combined with the ability to form real connections with locals, can transform a vacation into a really unique experience.
Being fluent in another language is a qualification for some jobs, especially if working in government or internationally. Aside from that, though, it isn’t a requirement for most jobs around here.
However, that doesn’t mean that knowing a second language doesn’t come in handy when applying for jobs, building careers or even venturing into entrepreneurship.
Not only can knowing a second language improve your chances of landing a job because it looks good on your resume, but thanks to all the other benefits you’ve reaped, you’re also probably a pretty great candidate.
Like all things worth doing, learning a second language is tough. It’s also a great accomplishment which leads to improved creativity, self-confidence and overall intelligence. Pretty much all of the typical traits listed on most job advertisements - creative problem solving, teamwork, multitasking, communication - are enhanced through the acquisition of a second language.
All of this can’t necessarily be accomplished by simply learning how to count to ten in another language - it takes practice.
“An excellent second language program will focus not only on the intricacies of grammar and specific vocabulary, but also whole-language instruction,” said McElroy. “This looks like listening, speaking and reading without attention to specifics but instead on ‘getting the gist’ or expressing yourself in spite of errors. Learning in context is key if complex neural circuitry is the goal.”
We asked McElroy how exactly the FSL program works where she teaches to gain a better picture.
“At Aberdeen Hall Preparatory School, our elementary program begins in Kindergarten because we know the brain is best able to develop new circuitry at a young age. We teach a program called AIM which focus on whole-language instruction first,” said McElroy. “It mimics the natural language acquisition of a first language to a child, using visual and kinaesthetic cues to support the new language with no attention at first to grammar or memorization.”
“In the middle school, we bring in the more specific grammar and vocabulary to add complexity to their language,” added McElroy. “With consistent practice, these two forms of instruction will lead not only to fluency in high school, but also to a brain that functions better in all academic areas.”
If you’d like to learn more about the French as a Second Language program as Aberdeen Hall, you can contact them here.
Aberdeen Hall is a non-profit, co-educational and non-denominational independent university prep school offering classes from Preschool to Grade 12. Aberdeen Hall fosters academic excellence in a progressive school environment which is safe and caring. Our school in Kelowna offers a wide range of extra-curricular activities and supports a strong sense of community. For more information, visit www.aberdeenhall.com.
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