||The advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism
Bilingualism in Welsh and English is important for children in Wales: it will affect the rest of their lives, and those of their parents. Being bilingual, multilingual or monolingual can affect a child's identity, networks of friends and acquaintances, schooling, employment, marriage, preferred area of residence, travel and thinking.
Bilingualism can increase opportunities and choices. For much of the twentieth century, bilingualism was seen as a potential deficit: in thinking, character formation and not least in schooling. But in recent decades, the dominant international view is that bilingualism has definite benefits for all children. Two languages: twice the choice.
There are many advantages - here are some of them, drawn from international research from the 1960's to today.
- Communication with the whole family and community
Being bilingual creates a bridge between generations - with grandparents, for example, who may speak Welsh while their grandchild could grow up predominantly speaking English. Being able to communicate between generations helps to build a sense of belonging to the extended family.
Being able to speak Welsh also allows young people who speak Welsh to play a full part in community life in those areas of Wales where the language is widely used.
Where parents each speak a different first language, a child who is bilingual can communicate freely with both, developing a close relationship with each parent. At the same time, both parents are passing to the child a part of their past and their heritage.
- Access to two cultures
One of the advantages of being bilingual is having access to two cultures - two different worlds of experience. With a language comes idiom and sayings, folk stories and history, poetry, literature and music, both traditional and contemporary.
Reading and writing in two languages means a bilingual person can enjoy literature in both original languages. This can create a deeper understanding of different traditions and ways of thinking and behaving. The pleasures of reading novels, poetry and magazines and the enjoyment of writing to friends and family are all doubled for bilingual people.
- Security in identity
The Welsh language is one of the few things that differentiates Wales from the rest of the UK, and it can be a powerful link between Welsh people everywhere. Everyone in and from Wales can be proud of the language, even if they don't speak it. It belongs to us all.
- Tolerance of other languages and cultures
Because two languages give people a wider cultural experience, they often have a greater tolerance of differences in cultures, creeds and customs beyond their own experience.
- Benefits for the brain
Research has shown that having two well-developed languages can give people particular advantages in the way they think:
- Creative thinking: bilingual children have two or more words for each object and idea, and different meanings are sometimes attached to words by the two languages. This means a bilingual person may develop the ability to think more flexibly not only about words, but about everything.
- Sensitivity: bilingual people have to know which language to speak with whom, and when. They therefore appear to be more sensitive to the needs of listeners than monolingual people.
- IQ: research from around the world shows that bilingual people tend to do better at IQ tests compared with monolingual people of the same socio-economic class.
- reading: bilinguals are less fixed on the sound of words and more on their meaning. Canadian researchers have shown this gives a head start in learning to read.
- Educational benefits
Children who have two languages tend to do better in the curriculum and to show slightly higher performance in tests and examinations - research from bilingual education systems as far afield as Canada, the USA, the Basque country, Catalonia and Wales shows this.
- Third languages easier
There is growing evidence that bilinguals tend to find it easier to learn a third language. For example, children from countries like Holland, Denmark and Finland often speak three or four languages with ease.
- Employment advantages
There are growing economic advantages of being bilingual in Wales. A person with two languages will have a wider choice of jobs, as Welsh speakers are increasingly needed in the retail sector, tourism, transport, public relations, banking and accountancy, administration, translation, secretarial work, marketing and sales, the law and teaching. Being bilingual is not a guaranteed meal ticket, but it gives people an additional valuable skill!
- Raised self-esteem
Being able to switch naturally between languages make a child feel good about themselves and their abilities. A sense of real ownership of both Welsh and English can do wonders to help raise a child's self-esteem.
- Exaggerating weakness
When a child's two languages are both poorly developed, and a child can't cope in any part of the school's curriculum, bilingualism can be a cause. Even then, the 'blame' should not go to the bilingual child, but often to societal circumstances that create under developed languages in a child. Problems may also arise in other areas of the curriculum when older children are expected to study other subjects in a language in which they are under developed or below the level demanded in curriculum activity.
- Increased parental input
Raising a bilingual child can be more of an effort for their parents. You'll need to engineer a child's bilingual development thoughtfully and creatively - especially if you speak one language yourself - allowing both languages to flourish.
- Cultural identity
Occasionally, children can feel confused about who they are: if they speak Welsh and English, are they Welsh, English, British, European, Anglo-Welsh? For many parents and children, this is not a problem - they may speak two languages, but they are resolutely identified with one ethnic or cultural group. There are some bilinguals who feel both British and Welsh, and they don't mind being 'culturally hyphenated'! There will be a few others who feel uncomfortable moving between two identities.