Being bilingual: Is it ever better to learn to speak one language over another?

My sons attend an international school where most of their classes are taught in French - except for English class. Easily, they spend most of their day hearing, speaking and learning in French - right in Chicago.

But, at their school, French isn’t considered to be a second language. Rather, French and English are both viewed as first languages.

Yes, even though my sons have two English-speaking, monolingual parents, French is not a “foreign” or second language for them. Rather, it’s become their first language - just like English.

And, to me, that is a true gift. But, some people didn’t always seem to see it that way.

When we first decided to enroll our sons in the school, my husband and I were asked why we wanted our sons to learn French - and not Spanish.

You see, Spanish is the second-most spoken language in Chicago. In fact, French doesn't even make the list of the top 10 languages spoken in Illinois, with the language only being spoken by 0.29% of the population according to the 2010 Census Report.

Of course, English is still considered to be the "go-to language" for international business. While, French is expected to become the world's most spoken language by 2050.

But, is it really about how many people speak a certain language in a city, a state, a country or across the world? Is that what should drive us to determine which language our children should learn to speak?

It all made me wonder if it could ever be deemed to be better to learn one language over another. And, I'd like to think that is not the case at all.

Rather, it's about knowing multiple languages versus just a specific one.

The benefits of being bilingual

A lot has been said recently about the benefits of being bilingual.

A recent France24.com article noted that people who fluently speak more than one language are more likely to be considered for a job and more likely to earn a higher wage than monolingual speakers. The article also pointed to the fact that learning to speak two languages develops the brain’s ability to solve internal conflict, it helps you better multitask, and it can delay the onset of Alzheimer's.

An About.com story on the reasons to learn a foreign language, notes that as years of foreign-language study increase, a child's math and verbal SAT scores also increase. And, children who study a foreign language often have higher standardized test scores in math, reading and language arts.

The same story also highlights the fact that people who understand and speak more than one language can more easily learn another language. In fact, each subsequent language you study will make learning a new language a little easier. And, if the languages are related, such as French and Spanish, German and Dutch, or Arabic and Hebrew, some of what you've already learned can apply to the new language as well.

So, it’s not just about what you speak now, but what you’ll speak later, too.

From bilingual to multilingual

Before we enrolled our sons at their school, I spoke with as many parents as possible to gain their views of the curriculum and try to understand how our English-speaking sons would adjust to learning in a primarily French-speaking environment.

Parent after parent helped calm any fears I had about my sons feeling potentially lost or confused. And, I’ll never forget the one parent whose son started in cours elémentaire (third grade), and after learning French at school, decided to teach himself Polish over the summer.

At the time, I couldn’t believe it. But, of course, now I’m not surprised at all.

My sons love learning new words and phrases when we travel to new countries. They love to play apps that help them “conquer” new languages. And, my younger son takes pride in being able to count in Japanese thanks to his karate class.

And, for me, that’s what it’s really all about.

Yes, you can look at the languages spoken by the most people. Yes, you can look at the language used most within a particular industry. And, yes, of course, you can look at the language spoken by the people around you and the ones you most want to communicate and connect with via words. But, for me, it really all comes down to the language you want yourself or your children to learn and the one that will serve as a springboard to learn more languages to help you (or your children) excel in our increasingly globally connected world.

Now, having been at their school for about two and half years, I believe that my sons have confidence in themselves that they can learn new languages – and that is priceless.

Language learning is just part of who they are today. My sons don’t give a second thought to learning math and science in French, to having their gym class taught in French, to learning how to read in French and in English, and to learning about euros in French and US dollars in English.

And, I expect that it will feel completely natural when they learn a “second” language in a few years, too.

So, for me, the real question isn’t “why French?, but rather, “what’s next after French?” And, then, of course, how they put their multilingual skills to use within their community and the world.

Do your children speak multiple languages? Which languages do they speak now? What other languages would you like them to learn? How has their experience been in acquiring new languages, especially at an early age? Did you ever choose from them to learn one language over another one? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

If you liked this post, you also may be interested in reading my thoughts on if it's ever too early for a child to learn a second language and six simple ways to raise world citizens.

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