Here is a possible solution to allow flexibility and improved learning capacity at any age: learning foreign languages. Whether you already speak a foreign language or are considering the challenge of communicating with another culture for business or pleasure.
The concept of bilingualism has been defined in different ways and with different perception. Commonly, it is identified that the term ‘bilingualism’ generally used in education in Britain, which defined bilingualism as the children who have access to more than one language at both home and school. It does not necessarily imply full fluency in both or all languages (DFES, 2005). Multilingualism denotes the ability to use more than two languages.
There is much research evidence of the significant long-lived cognitive, social, personal, academic, and professional benefits of learning languages. Cummins (1981) demonstrated that people learning foreign languages, regardless of age, have a keener awareness and sharper perception of language. The learning of a second or more languages enhances the children’s understanding of how language itself works and their ability to manipulate language in the service of thinking and problem solving (Cummins, 1981). By reviewing the above findings of researchers, I feel Cummins’s (1981) view is more appropriate as compared to other researchers like Peal & Lambert (2009). From my own experience, I have noticed that children who speak other languages at home are definitely faster at understanding new complex language structures and applying them with success. Their pronunciation is more precise, being able to produce and imitate sounds that are not natural in their mother tongue. Moreover, among the social advantages of bilingual children, Cook explains that they can expand their personal horizons and see their own culture from a new angle not available to monolinguals, allowing the comparison, contrast, and understanding of cultural notions (Cook, 2003). In this respect, I have also observed that most of EAL students show a cultural flexibility which allows them to discuss customs with more tolerance and objectivity than other monolingual students with a limited knowledge of other cultures.
Researchers are making new investigations in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, and one of the most stimulating things they have discovered is that, being multilingual offers remarkable benefits to the brain (Kaptain, 2007). For example, studies suggest that people with competence in more than one language do better than similar monolinguals on both verbal and nonverbal tests of intelligence, which introduces the question of whether skill in more than one language allows individuals to achieve greater intellectual flexibility (Vidal & Garau, 2008). The benefits can also extend later in life as Albert (1979) examined that multilingual stroke victims seldom lose ability in all of their languages since these languages are stored in different parts of the brain. This is an experience I can relate to as a close relative had a stroke some time ago and his ability to communicate in different languages remained unaffected.
In their study, Rivers & Golonka (2009) recognised that bilinguals or multilinguals learn an additional language more easily than monolinguals. This has received significant attention from researchers in the past years, as minority language communities in the European Union access greater educational autonomy and as United States Government language training programmes look for ways to respond to rapidly changing needs for international knowledge. This perspective is given weight by Nikolov and Curtain (2011) as they have pointed out that in Europe, researchers have focused considerable attention to the learning of a third language (L3) by childhood bilinguals such as Basque- Spanish bilingual secondary students learning English in Spain. These studies have sparked the research on cross linguistic influence or transfer in L3 acquisition.
For the purpose of this article, I will use Doughty and Long’s (2008) definition of transfer as the process of applying elements of previously learnt languages in using a newly acquired language.
As a native Spanish speaker, who learnt English as L2 and French as L3, what made it more accessible for me to learn L3 was the association of common elements, such as grammar and vocabulary. The same was experienced by my daughter (Spanish native with English as L2) as a teenager when learning French as L3 and German as L4 at school. Similarities between close languages were more important than differences as she was also able to associate common elements between English and German.
In conclusion, whether you are a monolingual or bilingual person who is considering learning another language, there is no doubt of the extended benefits of learning languages. No matter the age, the advantage of widening horizons in a world that day by day is more and more globalised through technology and communication is clear.