How Multilingualism Benefits Culture, Mind and Society
Words by Rachel Trevarthen
“Multiculturalism means more than a nice variety of food. Language is part and parcel of a multicultural society as culture is mediated through language and vice versa. It makes multiculturalism more interesting and valuable.”
This is John Hajek, the Director of the Research Unit for Multilingualism and Cross Cultural Communication (RUMACC) at the University of Melbourne, speaking to SIBW about the benefits of multilingualism.
As a linguist and from a multilingual family himself, John is passionate about promoting multilingualism and supporting parents who want to raise their children in this way.
Born in Footscray to a Slovene speaking mother and Croatian father, he has lived and brought up his own children in a multilingual environment and knows professionally and personally the benefits this brings.
“Firstly, language is an important part of people’s identity and for children, this skill allows them to talk and connect with family members including grandparents or family living overseas,” John says.
He says there are also long term benefits for literacy and numeracy in English.
“Learning to read and write in another language is really beneficial for English literacy. It saves time as children can apply the language basics to English. English is very difficult to learn to read and write because of the crazy spelling system,” John says.
“On top of this, children who are multilingual are proven to consistently do better in their High School certificate.”
There are also life long benefits for people actively speaking more than one language throughout their life.
Research has shown multilingualism delays the onset of dementia by at least 4 1/2 years. This is mostly related to the brain fitness required for bi or multilingualism, via the activation and maintenance of lots of different neural connections.
Unfortunately multilingualism isn’t supported sufficiently in Australian schools and educational institutions. John says the main issues is that while language is identified as a key learning area, states differ significantly in how they apply this.
“Many states do poorly on providing language learning, with some only providing a limited amount in secondary schools. A more coherent policy across the country is required.”
In Victoria, that is changing with a plan for all children to be doing a language until Year 10 by 2025. John says the effectiveness of this will come down to enough time being allocated to language learning.
In their own right, RUMACC runs a yearly successful public seminar called Raising Children in a Multilingual Environment, which brings parents and educators together across a large range of language community to support bilingual and multilingual communities.
“From these events, people take away that they aren’t alone, that there are many others like them in a multilingual environment. People learn how to come together and about strategies and possibilities in terms of promoting multilingualism outside the family home,” John says.
For more information about RUMACC and their upcoming seminar entitled “Raising Children in more than one Language” click here.