The importance of bilingualism


Photo by Kristine Cho

Kat Sarafianos

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]magine teaching four-year-olds French. Imagine going to work at eight A.M. every day and speaking to American preschoolers native to Columbia, Missouri in French. Imagine teaching and speaking solely in French to children who are so young they are barely able to communicate in English cohesively.  
Founder of Columbia’s first and only French immersion school, La Petite Ecole (LPE), Joelle Quoirin doesn’t have to. Her life at LPE consists of teaching young kids from two to six how to speak French in a completely immersive manner.
“I wanted to offer this opportunity for not only my children but for the community,” Quoirin said. “The benefits [of being bilingual] are tremendous and numerous.”
Quoirin is not alone in this belief. According to Yudhijit Bhattacharjee of the New York Times, learning multiple languages has a profound impact on the brain. While some may worry that learning another language, especially at a young age, will negatively impact their ability to speak their first language, they are wrong.
According to Bhattacharjee’s article, “The Benefits of Bilingualism,” the brain will use both language systems even when using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. Contrary to how it may seem, this is great for the brain, especially young learners who are still developing, because it forces the brain to resolve internal conflict and strengthen its cognitive muscles.
“[Being bilingual] is a great cognitive advantage in that it enhances [people’s] minds in such a way that it helps them learn better. It even helps them learn English better, which is often surprising to many,” Quoirin said. “They have this idea that learning French [or any other language] will take the place of English where in fact the opposite is true. It expands their language learning abilities and makes them more creative and able to do so much more with language, [such as] be better spellers.”
RBHS French teacher Kristin Reed agrees with Quoirin. Not only from watching her high school French students learn, but also from personal experience.
“I spent third and fourth grade in France and attended an international school, where my classes were 99 percent in French,” Reed said. “When I returned to the US, for whatever reason, school was very easy for me. I was always a finalist in spelling bees, and certain things really came easy for me. I think it was due to the fact that my brain was so formed in that time in France.”
Senior Timofey Kolenikov believes the benefits of speaking more than one language extend past the cognitive advantages. As a Russian and English speaker, he believes multilingualism opens doors for communication across cultures and groups of people.
“[Because I speak] Russian too, I can connect to [my] family well. Since my family is in Russia, it’s nice [that] I can go back and visit my grandparents because they can’t speak English,” Kolenikov said. [quote]Since you connect with multiple languages, I think knowing more than one language could increase your ability to connect and understand other cultures and empathize with a greater variety of people. It’s good to be able to speak multiple languages, especially if you speak a language like Spanish where multiple countries speak it.”[/quote]
Like Kolenikov, Quoirin thinks people learning more than one language can unify and help bring understanding to social stereotypes and prejudices.
“In my opinion, what creates prejudice is the fact that people perceive one another as being different, and once you overcome that difference you perceive people as being more like you than different,” Quoirin said. “[By learning a second language], you come to see how, as humans, we are all the same regardless of the language that we speak. We may have differences in the way that we show love or friendship … but underneath it all we are all the same.”