September 2014 – “The power of the bilingual brain”

In a 2013 edition of Time Magazine an article entitled ‘The power of the bilingual brain’ piqued my interest. Spanning 6 pages in length the article emphatically stresses the many benefits reaped from one’s bilingual education. For instance, research indicates that the brains of multilingual people are different in comparison to their monolingual counterparts – and the difference is infinitely for the better.

The article raises the idea of a total-immersion language-education program in America that starts when they first enter school – which is exactly what we at Mandarin Stars aim to do. Kluger states that studies increasingly show that multilingual people are better ‘at reasoning, at multitasking, at grasping and reconciling conflicting ideas. They work faster and expend less energy doing so, and as they age, they retain their cognitive faculties longer, delaying the onset of dementia and even full-blown Alzheimer’s disease’. Studies again indicate that the hippocampus, which helps ‘govern memory and mastery of new material’, shows detectable growth when learning and mastering a second language.

Nelson Mandela famously quoted ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’. His words are eminent when one considers the globalised world we now live in, where everyone is increasingly interconnected and international connections fostered become the norm. Then US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman – fluent in mandarin himself – argued that ‘multilingualism in education would be increasingly essential in the 21st century for students, businesspeople and government officials alike’. Language-immersion specialist Gregg Roberts with the Utah state office of education has also asserted that ‘Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century’ – which, to some, may sound dramatic, but definitely holds truth as we consider all the aforementioned expounding on the numerous virtues of being bilingual.

The article raised a few examples, one particularly stood out as it spoke of a Mandarin teacher at Spring Lane Elementary School – one of the schools that endorses the total-immersion language education program – who stated that her students are making steady progress throughout the year, starting school in August only being able to communicated English. However, in the time frame of two months they were able to follow directions in Mandarin, followed by speaking, reading and writing. The students were effectively able to mix English and Mandarin at recess and even correct and remind each other. This again shows the benefits of studying a new language in a fun and nurturing classroom-based environment with smaller class sizes – offered by Mandarin Stars. Students are able to effectively group together and learn a new language whilst accompanied by peers, which effectively offers security, familiarity, encouragement and friendly competition.

In every class, the laoshi (teacher) creates an immersion-based environment (90-100% in the Bubs and Toddlers classes; 80% for pre-school classes and 70-80% for primary school age children from 5+ as more complex sentences are introduced and sometimes English explanations are needed). Song, dance and music is effectively incorporated into the curriculum to foster interest within the children as they mimic their laoshi’s pronunciation of words and movements, effectively boosting participation levels which aids learning a second tongue. The laoshi gives instructions in Chinese, with simple vocabulary such as ‘yes, please’ and ‘no, thank you’; their pronunciation is stressed so that children can quickly learn and replicate, being able to efficiently learn and be able to respond to the Chinese vocabulary repeated throughout the course by the laoshi. Eventually, the child becomes at ease with learning Mandarin, laying down the basis for bilingualism.

In a world of polyglots, with rising economies like China rigorously retaining a bilingual curriculum throughout its states, more and more countries are starting to learn the importance of a bilingual education, whereby the brain becomes not necessarily smarter, but definitely more flexible and resourceful in its workings. At Mandarin Stars, we definitely believe in the ‘power of the bilingual brain’ and that learning a second language promotes a lifetime of multilingual benefits, especially when one starts is engaged with the language from a young age.