Maureen Fitzgerald, IBDP Coordinator at St. Joseph’s Institution International School Malaysia (SJIIM), answers some pertinent questions on the importance of learning a second language in school today.
How would you define a second language or foreign language in an educational context?
A foreign language is one that a student has had very little or no previous experience in learning. A second language is one that is not one’s first language that they have learned, and which they would not have the same level of fluency as their first language. For some students, they might have more than one language that they can use as a ‘best’ or first language, particularly if they have grown up in a bilingual environment. For this reason, a second language is also one that they have not previously studied at a ‘first language’ level.
What are some of the popular second languages offered at international schools today?
At SJIIM, our students have a choice of Spanish, Chinese or Malay. The relative popularity of these languages differs from year to year, depending on the previous learning and interest of each cohort. Both Chinese and Malay are important for students to develop a cultural awareness within Malaysia and the ability to communicate with others in their own country. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, with more than 400 million speakers worldwide. Learning Spanish will prepare students to be able to communicate in an increasingly globalised world.
How are international schools integrating a second language into their curriculum?
At SJIIM, we offer these languages at both foreign language and second language levels, so that students have a range of choices, depending on their interest and previous learning. Students are expected to take at least one foreign or second language in each year, and Malay students must take Malay in order to fulfil the government’s requirements for this.
What are the benefits of learning a second language?
In the words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Not only does learning another language help one to understand the ideas and beliefs inherent in that culture, but in speaking another language a person communicates to someone else that they value that other person’s culture and way of thinking.
If these cultural effects on our ability to have empathy and understanding for those who are different to us are not enough, the many studies on effects on the brain from learning a second language are a testament to its value. In an article in 2003 in the newspaper The Telegraph, some of these were explained, including improved memory, increased problem-solving and decision-making skills and the ability to multitask more effectively. The advantages in one’s career from learning a second language are becoming more and more likely as the world becomes increasingly globalised and companies are more likely to hire from abroad, and to communicate for business purposes with those in other countries.
What is your advice to parents and their children on choosing the right second language to learn?
It is important that students will enjoy the language that they are learning, so a language should be chosen that most interests their children. It should also be a language that they are not already fluent in, so that they have the right level of challenge in order to be stimulated. Parents and students will also want to consider their potential future plans. For example, whether they will plan to live overseas or in Malaysia in the future, and if a particular language will support these future plans better.
Do you think learning a second language can help students improve academically?
Learning a language has been shown to stimulate the growth of new synapses and connections in the brain. This would certainly have an impact on students’ academic progress. With this, it also supports the development of a better memory, and it supports the stronger development of a student’s first language, as they learn more about grammatical rules which can be transferred to their understanding of their first language. Because of the way that second language learners learn to switch between languages, they also develop better concentration skills, which will serve them well in their academic learning.
For more information, visit www.sji-international.edu.my
The writer’s personal insights about learning languages
My love of language goes beyond that of my own first language. As a schoolgirl, I studied two languages — German and Spanish. When I lived in Egypt, I learned Arabic. When I went on holiday to Russia many years ago, I studied the Cyrillic alphabet. I really enjoy international travel. But that is not why I love languages and feel so strongly that everyone should learn a second language.
As well as being a teacher of English, I am also the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme Coordinator in my school. The Programme is, perhaps, unusual in that, amongst five other compulsory subjects, completion of the diploma requires the study of a second language. Students can either learn a language that is completely new to them, or one that they have been studying previously. The reason for this is to ‘develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.’
Not only does learning another language help me to understand the ideas and beliefs inherent in that culture, but in speaking another language I communicate to someone else that I value his or her culture and way of thinking.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said that, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” It is clear from the evidence that one’s ‘world’ is enriched and expanded through the study of a second language, whether that is the mental world of one’s thoughts, the social world in one’s understanding of ideas and people who are different from me, or the physical world of travel and the world of work.
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