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Friday, April 6, 2012

Get Smart, Get Bilingual

By nature, I am impatient.  That condition does not help my efforts to learn (or in my case, re-learn) the Korean language. Because Korean is not related to English in the way that say Spanish, Italian or French are, romantically—so to speak—I am forced to re-frame all my perceptions of the world as I learn the language.  It is a rich and fascinating process, unfortunately made more challenging by the fact that my classes come late in the evenings.

Korean can be wonderfully ambiguous—no need to wrestle with the feminine or masculine—don’t worry, I am told, the person you are speaking with will figure out who you mean. On the other hand, when you are buying things like movie tickets, chickens, books, or say bottles of water--each has their own particular counting unit that must be attached to the type of item. I can only smile at these countless discoveries I make on this linguistic and cross-cultural journey.

That said, a recent article in The New York Times by Yudhjit Bhattacharjee, was especially eye-opening. The author claims that speaking a second language has many more benefits than the obvious value of navigating more fluidly across our global landscape. The findings are that being bilingual actually makes you smarter. The implications are, I think, far reaching.

Korea has a several decades-old national strategy to ensure that almost all their students learn to speak English in their public schools. Additionally, parents who can afford it--and many who can’t, but work longer and harder to pay the necessary tuition—send their kids to late afternoon through late evening private schools so that they can hone their English skills even further. The ultimate goal, truth be told, is to help ensure that their kids get top grades on college entrance exams and thus get accepted into a top tier Korean University.

Korean students were recently ranked first internationally on problem-solving skills--a good list to be first on. One has to wonder about the possible correlation between the country-wide initiative here to learn English and this national problem-solving competency. According to Bhattacharjee, “the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks.”

I know back in the U.S. we often talk about how we need to be better able to compete on the world stage. But, what would be a better way to prepare our children to be competent global citizens than to ensure that each child can speak at least one language other than English?  Korean, Chinese, Spanish, French—competence in that second language would surely be their best possible passport into the future. Collectively, we would be much smarter for it.

Young Korean students racing into the future

Link to New York Times Article

1 comment:

  1. Good post. I've been feeling stupid lately. Now I've got another motive to learn Thai when I get to Chiang Mai.

    Red buds on the Peaks Island trees. john