Embracing Bilingualism and Navigating the Language Market

Lately, I’ve met learners who were questioning their language skills and worrying if these were slowly deteriorating. It’s natural for people who speak more than one language to grow concerned when they have difficulties in remembering or using words and structures in their native language. In fact, as multilingual individuals, we often mix up rules, words, and structures when switching between languages. It should come as a relief to all whom have wondered this to know that recent research has shed light on the cognitive benefits of being bilingual, dispelling the old myth that speaking multiple languages hinders language proficiency and academic success and can confuse children in their acquisition phase. 


Renowned researcher Ellen Bialystok reveals that being bilingual enhances executive processing and even delays age-related declines like dementia. So, why do we sometimes experience challenges in language usage when switching between languages? A recent article I came across explains that thoughts and language develop along two distinct paths, intersecting but not mutually exclusive. This means that bilingual individuals don’t lose knowledge in one language to make room for new language skills. Instead, they adapt the way they use language to think and process information. Each language offers unique vocabulary, contexts, and mental processes, resulting in thinking and processing information in multiple ways. 


These findings are closely related to the concepts of Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) and Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) developed by Jim Cummins. CALP represents academic knowledge, including writing, reading abilities, and word knowledge, while BICS refers to language proficiency acquired through social interactions and personal experiences. It’s easy to confuse the two. For instance, I may appear fluent and confident when conversing in English, but there can be a significant gap between my conversational language and my academic language. Closing this gap requires time and patience, with CALP development taking up to seven years for 11-year-old children, while conversational fluency can be achieved within two years. 


While bilingual proficiency is linked to academic success, other factors can influence language learning outcomes. A study involving 40 teachers in South Africa examined the best approaches for learners with limited proficiency (LLP). The teachers identified large class sizes, pre-school exposure to English, socio-economic differences, and family environments as significant influencing factors. Socio-economic disparities and an inability to become literate in the native language can delay mastery of the second language. Cummins also highlights the transfer of ideas and concepts from one language to another, strengthening the link between the two languages. 


Being bilingual is not a disadvantage; it requires determination and an open mind to become a fluent and charismatic speaker in a second language. While achieving BICS may be relatively easier, developing CALP demands patience. If you find yourself struggling with words and structures, don’t worry. It’s simply a natural consequence of your brain navigating between languages and adjusting to different thought processes. On the bright side, being bilingual has the potential to delay the onset of senile dementia. 


The importance of having such skills fosters even more importance in today’s world, where the concept of a language market is gaining considerable prominence. Language, like any other commodity, holds value and is exchanged to fulfil wants and needs. Language is becoming increasingly useful for production, distribution, communication, and sales in the new economy. To understand this idea better, we must consider two critical factors: globalization and capitalism. 


Our world is globalized, with no barriers to travel and communication between speakers of different languages becoming essential. Simultaneously, capitalism dominates our economies, with everything revolving around the pursuit of wealth. These factors have impacted the language market, with English emerging as the global lingua franca. As people began traveling and markets expanded across borders, effective communication across linguistic differences became crucial. Consequently, individuals who could speak English as an additional language became highly sought-after in various sectors, from advertising to tourism and even to call centres. Did you know that nearly two billion people are learning and using English worldwide? However, a significant portion of these learners do not have access to efficient English education in public schools. 


This demand for qualified English teachers has given rise to TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) tourism. Many native English speakers, sometimes lacking teaching qualifications or experience, travel the world, offering their services as English teachers for volunteering, CV-building, or simply seeking an adventure. This trend has created a thriving language market, with a high demand for language courses worldwide and a need for more qualified teachers. 


Being a native speaker of English is undoubtedly advantageous, as it allows to communicate with over a third of the global population and significantly reduces the risk of unemployment. However, some linguists caution against the potential downside of being confined to the “Anglo-bunker.” This term refers to English-speaking countries where the learning of languages other than English is often overlooked. This limited exposure to other languages can lead to a lack of empathy towards non-English speakers. Whether this phenomenon is true or not, English undeniably dominates the new economy. As a native or proficient English speaker, your language skills will always be rewarded, not just in teaching. 


In conclusion, being bilingual offers cognitive benefits and does not hinder language proficiency or academic success. Bilingual individuals adapt their language use to think and process information in unique ways. Factors such as socio-economic disparities and family environments can influence language learning outcomes. Being multilingual acquires even more value in times when the language market is emerging as a crucial component of the globalized and capitalist world, and the English confirms is position as the lingua franca. The demand for English language proficiency has created opportunities and challenges, shaping the English Language Teaching industry and the need for qualified English teachers. While the dominance of English has its advantages, it is important to maintain a global perspective and embrace empathy for other languages and cultures. 


So, let’s raise a toast to language diversity and remind ourselves that in this new economy, “no English, no party” may be the rule, but our linguistic journey can open doors to a world of opportunities. 

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