Bilingual education: preparing for the future workplace

Research shows speaking more than two languages fluently brings health, social and economic benefits. Relocate Global’s Education and Family Focus webinar explored what an immersive bilingual education can offer.

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In the future global war for talent, cultural awareness and agile thinking are set to become even more important. Nowhere is this more evident than in the increasing demand for bilingual speakers. With half the world’s population already bilingual, how can the other half access the same opportunities? A raft of studies show at least a doubling of demand for people with language skills. Among them, a 2017 report by research and advocacy organisation New American Economy. It found that in 2010, there were roughly 240,000 job postings aimed at bilingual workers. By 2015, that figure had ballooned to approximately 630,000. Aligning with the wider skills agenda, such is the importance of language skills for global competitiveness, bodies like the British Council are warning policymakers of the current and future workforces’ lack of language capabilities. The number of young people taking a modern foreign language at A level and GCSE has declined over the past decade. A lack of modern foreign language qualification take-up is jeopardising the government’s target for its EBacc group of core academic subjects. Calling for a greater focus on foreign language acquisition, British Council Schools Advisor Vicky Gough said: “By learning a foreign language, pupils develop skills to work with other cultures and people. These skills are essential for the UK’s future in an increasingly interconnected world.”  

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Bilingualism and skills for the future

Organisations able to demonstrate to their clients their people are able to empathise, shift easily between different cultures and communities – work and social – in this more inclusive world will be the most successful.It is here that a truly bilingual education – one that is immersive – really has value. Speaking in Relocate Global’s recent webinar, Brenda Levis, president of Relocate Award-winning destination service provider NYC Navigator, noted:“We see a lot of people who were raised internationally and want children to have same experience of growing up in multiple cultures. We find that bilingual and multilingual children bring less bullying into the classroom and are much more accepting of different cultures.”Fellow panellist Françoise Zurbach, head of EIFA International School in Marylebone, London, an immersive bilingual school where lessons are conducted in French and English, agrees. “One of the many benefits of bilingualism is a better understanding of different cultures as friendships are naturally developed with children from various backgrounds.” 

Boosting brainpower and mental agility

There are further benefits above being able to communicate fluently in more than one language. These range from the emotional, the ability to multitask and to self-expression. “Language above all is a culture,” said Françoise Zurbach. “It’s the whole block: the language, the culture, the emotion. How we speak to people changes according to the language. It’s the enrichment switching between both languages brings to the brain.” Research shows that speaking at least two languages is a mental workout that improves the brain’s agility and how the human nervous system responds to sound. This makes an immersive bilingual education a possible solution to the boredom often faced by children with high learning potential. This is also to the degree that being bilingual has been shown to delay the onset of dementia by an average of five years compared to monolinguists because of the stronger connections speaking more than one language develops in the brain.In the near term, being bilingual has further been shown to support higher academic attainment, increase executive function and the ability to plan, problem solve, think out of the box and multitask. These are all critical skills for the future workforce.

The importance of an immersive curriculum

Yet to draw down these benefits, how the child experiences the acquisition of another language is critical. While some language tuition is better than none, Francoise Zurbach, who experienced an immersive approach to learning French at school from the age of 10, says an education that is monolingual 90% of the time will not produce that same results. “Successful true bilingualism requires that both languages themselves be the medium of instruction, not just the subject of instruction.”This is why at EIFA its balanced English-French curriculum is delivered five days a week. “Some bilingual schools teach a second language only part of the week,” explained Francoise Zurbach. “If a child doesn’t speak the language at home, then this means they can go four days or so without speaking their second language.”Joining Brenda Levis and Françoise Zurbach on the webinar panel, Johanna Mitchell, director of Lumos Education, an education and relocation consultancy that works to settle families from around the world, concluded: “Bilingualism is critical. Often parents are multiple passport holders and languages. They want their children to have a sense of global mobility and global awareness. Being bilingual or multilingual gives their children opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

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