The majority of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual, with monolingual speakers in the minority. In New Zealand 96.1% of the population speaks English, but a surprising 160 different languages are spoken by people living in this country. Auckland is now one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.
Despite our cultural and language diversity, New Zealand is unusual because so many people are monolingual. At the 2006 census, 80.5 % of New Zealanders claimed to speak only one language, and the vast majority of them (98%) were English speakers.
The geographical isolation and small population size of New Zealand (approximately 4,470,800 as at 30 June 2013) are factors which may discourage many New Zealanders from seeing the relevance of learning a foreign language - particularly when English is so dominant.
However, teaching our children and young people to speak more than one language has been found to have significant benefits:
Language and culture are inextricably linked – know a language and you have the key to knowing other people. Learning a language broadens your child’s awareness of different cultures – they learn things that they would otherwise never come across, including an appreciation for art, literature and music from different countries. Learning a new language also promotes tolerance and understanding.
Languages enable you and your family to explore other countries beyond the limitations of standard tourist tours and guide books. By making an effort to communicate in a person’s native language, they are more inclined to speak with you and help you find the best places off the beaten track, and assist in emergencies if necessary.
Even if foreign travel is a remote possibility, learning a second language allows cross-cultural communication through the Internet, and opens the door to an entire network of people. Hosting an exchange student or foreign travelers is easier too.
Cognition is the umbrella term used to describe what are essentially skills used to learn – processing of information, applying knowledge and making decisions.
Numerous studies have found significant cognitive benefits result from learning a new language. It helps develop and improve:
- Accurate listening skills
- Complex problem solving skills
Knowledge of a foreign language is equally useful for gaining employment, particularly in industries where companies are doing more business with international customers. Knowledge of the language of the region where your company is expanding into new markets can make you indispensable to the success of the business as you bridge the cultural gap between the two locations.
Some employers are even willing to offer additional compensation to employees who have verifiable foreign language competency, particularly if such languages are in high demand
While young people rarely have concerns about their old age, learning and using a second language has also been found to help protect the brain from the effects of aging – there is a significant delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease for bilingual people and the effects of dementia are less advanced even when more brain damage has occurred as a result of the disease.
"We are fortunate to speak a global language but in a smart and competitive world, exclusive reliance on English leaves (us) vulnerable and dependent on the linguistic competence and the goodwill of others..."
Nuffield Languages Inquiry, UK, 2000