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The benefits of being bilingual

My thanks to Sandy Millin of Almost Infinite TEFL ideas (see link in the blogroll way down at the bottom of the page) for inadvertently finding a wonderful article for me. Being bilingual myself I require little persuasion that it is a truly happy state of affairs. This article from the New York Times brings several scientific studies together to show the current understanding of he phenomenon. Given that the benefits appear to apply to those who learn a language later, and not just to those who were born into multilingual families I’m sure that many students will find it interesting too.  To that end I have some thoughts about using it for a lesson.


Before going in to a discussion on this subject you should be aware that in many cultural contexts bilingualism has been extremely contentious.  Here in France the ideological struggle to build ‘une France, unie’ by eliminating all regional particularities and languages is extremely recent.  My mother in law who is in her seventies remembers children who spoke patois in the playground at primary school being kept behind and made to walk home along country lanes in the dark alone.  This in the name of modernity…

Immigrants to France in the nineteen fifties who came from Italy, Spain and Poland were instructed to refrain from speaking their own languages at home with their children.  The pressure was considerable, and insidious.  Less than twenty years ago when my eldest child was little, I was told in all seriousness that I was ‘traumatising’ my child by exposing him to a second language.  These were highly educated people who were in the prime of life.  Not uneducated elderly peasants.

For this reason, French citizens of immigrant origin often find it difficult to discuss their family culture – they have been made to feel that it is not something to be proud of.  Wherever you teach, and wherever your students come from, be aware that the feedback may not always be positive..

Given that we can expect this subject to yield rich discussion and learning… here are some possible discussion starters;

  • Which languages are spoken in your family?
  • When did you start learning your first foreign language?  What do you remember about the experience?
  • What reasons were given for languages being important?
  • What is it that is easy or difficult about learning a language?
  • Do you think your English classes are making you more intelligent?
  • Have you read or heard anything about there being benefits to learning languages?
  • etc….

I have to admit that I’m always slightly uncomfortable when well-meaning people express a view that English has some status apart from other languages…. it’s all right for me to speak English with my children…. the problem is these ‘other’ people, who speak arabic, or portugese…. personally, I take a deep breath and say that I don’t see a difference, and that speaking one’s own language in one’s own home is a basic human right.   (Ignorance comes in all shapes and sizes, but it doesn’t make a person bad.)


The article isn’t particularly difficult as long as students have a reasonable grasp of technical-type English.  The main problems for comprehension will probably come with the descriptions of the experiments.  I suggest drawing pictures on the board – 2 ‘digital bins’ and so on.

Points in the article for discussion;

  • Which studies seem the most interesting to you?  (age group, typs of experiment, size of sample..)
  • Do the samples seem large enough for the findings of these studies to be taken seriously?
  • If you could fund a study, what type of project would you want it to be?
  • There are complications in studying cognitive effects (some people are just more stupid than others, or better at different types of tasks..) do you think that this makes such studies impossible?
  • Which finding do you find the most encouraging (given that you, the student are bilingual to some extent)?


As always, see where the discussion goes.  If it doesn’t ‘go’ of its own accord, you can try these ideas;

  • What tricks can you recommend for language learning?
  • If you had the time and opportunity, which language would you like to learn?
  • If you were in charge of government policy, what measures would you enact in the areas of education, health, care for the elderly…?
  • If you have children, how do you view language learning for them, and what advice do you give them?

Readers of this blog are probably better informed on this subject than I am.  What experience and knowledge can you share?


About Catherine Kennedy

Second year undergrad (super-mature) at Sheffield Uni doing single honours Religion, Theology, and the Bible. (Formerly TEFL teacher in France)

2 comments on “The benefits of being bilingual

  1. Deandre

    Thank you a lot for sharing this with all folks you actually know what you
    are talking approximately! Bookmarked. Please also seek advice from my website =).
    We may have a link exchange contract among us

  2. Sandy Millin

    Hi Catherine,
    I’ve finally clicked on your blog, after meaning to for quite a while. I don’t know what took me so long, and I have now subscribed! I’m glad the article I found helped you out, and I’m now going to share this lesson plan on Twitter. Thanks for sharing!

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March 2012
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