THE BENEFITS OF SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNING
(The view of Australian scientists on the problem)
“Language learning can result in a better understanding of one’s first language in stimulate rigorous thinking and memory. Learning another language may also broaden…linguistic perspectives in communication…”
[The Australian Language and Literacy Policy, DEET 1991].
The learning of languages other than one’s own tends to be regarded uncritically by the public as a general good. However such a broad generalization needs to be examined carefully to perceive how this might vary across different times, different political contexts and different philosophies about education, immigration, international affairs and other major societal concerns. Language learning cannot be ascribed value or lack of value without reference to individual, educational and societal aspirations, and statements on its worth will inevitably reflect sociopolitical positions.
This report will examine varying views on the place of second language learning in the education system and in society, but will take a position for the purposes of the arguments, that the learning of second languages has many benefits. The opinions of foreign linguists will be used in this report to show their interest to the problem and to support it as well. It is also worth mentioning that there exists no literature which attempts to argue that the learning of languages lacks value. Rather, any such position comes being through public policies which neither nor promote language learning. The policy states that “Second language study has been advocated as intrinsically valuable…as educationally, culturally and intellectually enriching” [Lo Bianco 1987: 120]. And that is true for all languages, whether community languages, indigenous languages or languages of international use, whether or not they coincide with those traditionally taught in schools or another educational institutions.
I propose some main (to my mind) categories of benefits conferred by second language study, which will be discussed further in this report. These are: enrichment(cultural and intellectual); cognitive (personal benefits) I accept the evidence that languages are essential to understanding culture, and that early language training helps students to develop insights into other societies’cultures, belief systems and values, and through those, reflect on their own.
In spite of all benefits of second language learning which were pointed above I must admit some possible contributing factors to rather low status and lack of consistent funding of ESL (English as a Second Language) in Russia. One is generally poor record of large numbers of English-speaking Russians in learning a language with any success, which may lid to a public perception that languages are difficult to acquire, and ultimately not rally necessary. For example, the Prime Minister of the Australian Linguistics Society reveals the attitude which can be related to any country including Russia. He says: “ it appears to be widely believed in Australia that foreign languages are essentially unlearnable to normal people, and that Australians have a special innate anti-talent for learning them” [ALS/ ALAA 1981:15].
A second possible contributing factor is community attitudes to other languages in the public sphere, where they are sometimes seen as a “foreign” and threatening. But we must note changing community attitudes in times of globalization. If not long ago studying the foreign languages was an elite, high-status pursuit fairly well removed from ordinary people, in the last years new time made demands for the recognition of necessity in second language learning.
Thirdly, some would argue that since English is now recognised virtually unchallenged as the dominant global language it has become even less necessery for English speakers to learn any other. Crystal refers to “clear signs of linguistic complacency” among English- speakers and a “genuine, widespread lack of motivation” which might well be linked to the spread of English as a global language [Crystal 1997a:15]. Edwards states that while English and American monolinguals complain they have no aptitude for foreign languages, they display a self-satisfied belief that everyone else will have to learn English: [this complaint]…is usually accompanied by expressions of envy for those multilingual Europeans, and (sometimes) by a linguistic smugness reflecting a deeply-held conviction that, after all, those clever ‘others’ who do not already know English will have to accommodate in a world made increasingly safe for anglophones [Edwards 1994:60]. In view of above three factors which we suggest may contribute to the poor status of learning foreign languages, it is worth considering in more details the arguments which have been put forward for the importance of language learning.
The abovementioned five categories of benefits are wide-ranging and comprehensive, comprising individual enrichment, economic benefits, social equity benefits, trade and foreign affairs, communicative abilities and others. The emphasis here is thus on individual benefits, but some mention is made of the other categories. Individual benefits of language learning are usually framed as intellectual, cultural and economic. The economic arguments have little relevance here, but discussion of intellectual and cultural and communicative benefits follows.
Traditionally, the study of foreign language has been justified educationally by the supposed benefits which the rigorous, sustained learning of classical or modern European languages would have on the on the development of disciplined, logical thinking and of problem-solving abilities. It was also claimed that the process of contrasting languages would provide heightened linguistic awareness. It was commonly thought that only European or classical languages (i.e. languages of high status) could provide this intellectual discipline. According to this view, Asian languages are too differently structured and cannot provide intellectual value. This view may well still be held in some quarters, but it is no longer defensible in the face of current thinking about language learning. LoBianco acknowledged that the second language study has long been advocated as intrinsically valuable, but was at pains to point out that this is true for all languages. All languages are complex in linguistic, cultural and socioprogmatic ways and therefor present equivalent, if diverse, challenges to the learner [LoBianco 1978]. It is commonplace for many scientists to acknowledge in very general terms that language learning has cognitive benefits, suggesting that this is so well accepted that it needs little elaboration.
Language study is credited with assisting cognitive processes as it constitutes an “intellectual stimulus” and includes “new ways of thinking, learning and organising knowledge” [ALS/ALAA 1981:24]. Language learning can help learners to understand that there are alternative ways of conceiving and labeling the physical universe. Evidence from Canadian and other research in bilingual education suggests that bilingual children show greater cognitive flexibility and creativity in problem-solving. [Lambert and Tucker 1972, Bain and Yu 1978] In addition I can say that the second language learning can improve learning in other academic subjects providing an analytical and communicative skill that enhances learning in other fields. The more, second language learning gives deeper knowledge of the structure and processes of communication, it provide access to different bodies of knowledge which are not unavailable to the monolingual speaker and give access to a wider range of ideas in a greater variety of areas. Another important thread in the literature which looks at intellectual aspects of second language learning is the potential for extending learners knowledge of an understanding of languages in general and their first language in particular. It gives the ability to analyse the function and structure of language and can enhance understanding of how language works and act as a mirror to one’s own language and culture.
Most authors concede that language study has only the potential to cause all these developments, and Liddicoat  states that language learning does not inevitablydo anything. He says that bilingualism (within which we can include learning a second language to a high level) can confer intellectual, psychological, social and cultural benefits “given the right conditions”. So, too, does Jessner emphasis that bilingualism can be cognitively advantageous “under certain circumstances” [Jessner 1999:201-202]. These authors do not elaborate in these instances, having other concerns, but from what we know about bilingualism and second language learning we can suppose what these conditions and circumstances might be. In the case of bilingualism, a supportive home and school environment, and continuing linguistic and conceptual development in L1 (native language) are crucial. In formal second language learning , the needs are for sound teaching, appropriate and relevant materials, continuity, and explicit teaching of linguistic and cultural features of language, or focus on form and function. In the absence of all or some of these features, language learning may deliver on few or none of its claimed virtues. I would provide a more detailed analysis of the benefits of language learning than any cited above, and it is worth considering in some detail the aspects of their analysis which bear on intellectual development. I make a distinction between the substance, the process and the outcomes of language learning. Regarding the substance a basic process of memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules, second language learning necessitates going through a process of stages of ‘metaphorization’ in order to understand culturally contexted language use, and that this process occurs in understanding even linguistically simple texts. The process of language learning involves the links between text and context, and provides a balance between inductive and deductive learning. The outcomes of language learning, apart from the most apparent ones of abilities to speak the language concerned and the vocational opportunities that offers, include “a set of transferable skills in terms of analysis and synthesis of information in contexts of communication.
One further aspect of the intellectual contribution of language learning is language awareness.Learners are assisted to develop language awareness tools such as ‘noticing’ and linguistic intuition, and to apply them both to their mother tongue and to the language they are learning. There is evidence, too, that bilinguals possess greater awareness than monolinguals, most notably in the work of Ben-Zeev  who summarised her findings as follows: a) a bilingual indulges analysis, or practices a form of ‘incipient contrastive analysis’; b) bilinguals work hard to keep their two languages separate by maximising their perception of the structural difference between them and keeping a lookout for contrastivity; c)bilinguals are more sensitive to linguistic feedback than monolinguals and therefore more open to concentrate.
The next benefit of second language learning is cultural one. It is often claimed to have the benefit of broadening cultural horizons and this is clearly of relevance to teachers who are charged with teaching elements of culture themselves. What most concerns us here are ways of discussing culture which are most relevant to language and language learning. Language does not exist apart from culture, that is, the socially inherited assemblage of practices and benefits that determines the texture of our lives. Cross-cultural communication is an important feature of education, politics and business, as well as international contacts. Whether it is possible to have multiculturalism without multilingualism? How does culture relate to language learning and teaching? As it is known all teachers of foreign language are teachers of culture and students are learning cultural practices from the very first day of a language course, whether or not these explicitly pointed out by the teacher. A major point made by many scientists is that language learning gives us insights into the cultures of the peoples who use that language, and that any such insights develop without a knowledge of the language must inevitably be shallow. Language is the deepest manifestation of culture. It facilitates the expression of universals and those features that are specific to a particular culture, i.e. its “way of looking at the world”. ALS/ ALAA [1981:13] gives a powerful justification for how the study of languages contributes to an enriched understanding of the world: The very discovery that different cultures express the same reality in different ways and sometimes emphasise different aspects of reality is a significant contribution to any young child’s educational development, for this is what liberates people from ethnocentrism…German ‘Gesundheit’, Italian ‘prego’, Indonesian ‘selamat makan’ highlight different forms of communicative behaviour which do not have parallels in English. Only by studying a particular language in depth can a person actually experience what it is like to try and think in another way, and to project oneself into a different mode of organizing reality. The more, through successful learning of a second language one can reflect on one's own language and culture.
Other benefits of language learning is language apprenticeship. Being bilingual gives one confidence in learning another languages. “Knowing that it is easy to operate in two languages makes it seem entirely possible to learn a third (or fourth) language. [Baker and Prys-Jones 1998:265]. The third language is easier to learn than a second, a fourth easier than a third, and so on, (but, I think, we must take into account languages distance). The learning a second language is the key to unlocking a kind of mental ‘door’ to further language learning and it is termed ‘language apprenticeship’. An interesting empirical perspective is provided on this aspect by Postmus  who compared the language learning processes of adult bilinguals with those monolinguals, all of whom were learning Mandarin as a foreign language at an Australian university. She found that differences in prior linguistic experience influenced learners' conceptions of language learning and their approaches to the language learning task, specifically their strategic use of metalinguistic thinking. Her findings are an important support for notion of ‘language apprenticeship’ and for the research into third and subsequent language learning as distinct from second language acquisition.
Other benefits of language learning: exhilaration. Sometimes overlooked in claims for benefits of language learning is the enjoyment, pleasure, and satisfaction which accompany the process. Second language learning is often regarded as simply the acquisition of a useful skills, meeting individual or national needs, rather than as being an essential part of education. Enjoyment, discovery and desire are also part of language learning. “What may have been overlooked is the sheer exhilaration of the journey into a foreign language and a foreign culture for its own sake…the intrinsically rewarding nature of such journey…” [Hawkins 1999:134]. One of the strongest motivation of foreign languages learners is their love of languages and desire to use them in communication, in their future or present work.. Such learners take intensive physical pleasure in acquiring a language, thrill in trespassing on someone else’s territory, becoming a foreigner on their own turf, becoming both invisible and differently visible. Multilingual speakers create new discourse communities whose aerial existence monolingual speakers hardly suspect. Many language learning autobiographies evoke a strong power of second languages to transform experience and identity [Pavlenko 2001], and this is evident in that [Lvovich 1997] who talks of the “nourishment” and “passion” which her learning and speaking of French afforded her in contrast to her grim Soviet existence. She describes her “French soul” as embracing people, passions, achievements, suffering and love, and she experiences being cut off from the language as being similar to losing a friend or a lover [Lvovich 1997:71]. Enjoyment is an intangible benefit which often considered in statements of desirable educational outcomes, and it is a key part of language learning for many people. In the case of the teachers in this study, enjoyment of and love for languages often constituted the key for their becoming ESL teachers.
The main focus in this article has been on individual advantages derived from language learning of an intellectual and cultural nature, as being the most relevant to the work of ESL teachers. The intellectual value of language learning includes the development of alternative ways of conceiving of and describing the universe, and of a deeper understanding of the process of communication, and involves processes of ‘metaphorization’ and ‘hypothesis forming and testing’. Speakers of second language develop skills in analysing and synthesising knowledge in order to communicate in contexts of limited linguistic resources and imperfectly grasped cultural concepts.
1. ALS/ALAA: Australian Linguistics Society. Languages in a core curriculum- a set of statements from the profession. //Journal of the Australian Federation of MLTA. 1981, 13,15,24.
2. Baker,C. Faundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. Clevendon, //Multilingual Matters, 2001.
3. Ben-Zeev,S. Mechanisms by which childhood bilingualism affects understanding of language and cognitive structures. New York //Academic Press, 1977.
4. Crystal, D. English as a global language. Cambridge, //University Press,1997a.
5. Edwards, J. //Multilinguism. London, Routledge,1994.
6. Hawkins, E. Awareness of language study and language awareness. //Languages awareness 8 (3 & 4): 1999, 124-142.
7. Jessner, U. Metalinguistic awareness in multilinguals: cognitive aspects of third language learning. //Language Awareness 8 (3 & 4 ): 1999, 201-209.
8. Lambert, W.E. and G.R. Tucker Bilingual education of children: //The St.Lambert experiment. Rowley, Mass., Newbury House, 1972.
9. Liddicoat, A. Some future challenges for languages in Australia. //Babel 2002, 37 (2): 29-31.
10. LoBianco, J. National Policy on languages. Canberra //Australian Government Publishing Service. 1987.
11. Lvovich, N. The multilingual self: an enquiry into language learning. New Jersey, 1997.
12. Pavlenco, A.. Language learning memories as a gendered genre. //Applied Linguistics. 2001, 22 (2): 213-240.
Acha College, Israel
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