Monthly Archives: January 2013

Globalized Economy Demands Foreign Language Proficiency

Here’s further proof of the importance of foreign language learning. The following article is from ICEF Monitor, January 23, 2013:

Virtually all of the most ambitious students in the world, at all levels – elementary, secondary, and tertiary – have one thing in common in 2013: the desire to become proficient in a language other than their native tongue, and possibly several languages. For some of these A-type students, “desire” is not strong enough a word – “requirement” is more apt. Take the example of Lenka Menden, profiled in The Economist’s article “Parlez-vous MBA?”:

When it came to where to study for her MBA, Ms Menden chose IESE in Barcelona, and commented to The Economist:

Across the pond in the US, an NYU Livewire article interviewed Jim O’Grady, a journalist and professor at New York University’s graduate school of journalism who at the time of the article’s writing, was studying introductory Spanish. O’Grady explained:

But while Americans are now becoming increasingly aware of the need to speak another language, they are facing significant obstacles to achieving this goal.

A Forbes article recently reported that despite growing demand among Americans for foreign language courses, American “schools at every level are balancing their budgets and offsetting reductions in government allocations by cutting their offerings and/or eliminating foreign language requirements.” This, despite the fact that right now roughly 18% of Americans report speaking a language other than English versus 53% of Europeans.

By contrast, reforms to British curriculum (due to take effect in 2014) include all children in Britain being taught a foreign language from the age of seven, and Scotland announced last year that within a decade all pupils will start learning other languages from the first year of primary school instead of the currently mandated P6.

Opportunities for foreign language providers

International students will be increasingly drawn to schools at every level and possibly abroad that can offer them foreign language proficiency – whether through stand-alone courses or schools, or within programmes such as MBAs.

Spurring their demand may well be reports such as this one from the influential Economist Intelligence Unit: Competing across borders: How cultural and communication barriers affect business. The Economist report (available for free) is based on a 2012 survey targeted at 572 executives in Europe, Asia Pacific, North America and Latin America. Just one quote from the report underlines the importance of foreign language proficiency for graduates:

Which languages are in demand?

UK-based The Telegraph recently posted a list of the ten best languages to study based on their relation to employability. The Guardian narrows it down (for Brits) to French, Spanish, Swedish, German, and Russian. Key Skills for Enterprise to Trade Internationally, published by Forfás (Ireland’s policy advisory board for enterprise and science) and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN) emphasises a more comprehensive list: German, French, Spanish and Italian as well as Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Arabic.

Of course, the demand for programmes in certain languages will vary across the world. In India, for example, there have been recent reports of a surge in applications to take the Japanese language proficiency test. Portuguese and Hindi could be very important for some students.

And despite the rise of non-Western nations in the global economy, English is still the language most commonly used as the first language of business in international commerce.

Tips for responding to multiple language demand

Recruiters should be aware of rising demand for:

Foreign language training not just at the tertiary level, but at the primary and secondary levels as well. Families who are very serious about the career-boosting benefits of a study abroad option will increasingly be considering private boarding schools as well as summer language camps for their children.
MBAs that include foreign language proficiency as a graduation requirement (e.g., Thunderbird, a top-ranked School of Global Management with locations across the world, or London Business School).
Stand-alone language programmes that emphasise immersion in the culture of the host country. Multinational communication is about more than language; it is about knowing the culture of another country (i.e., degree of formality, culinary traditions, gender etiquette, etc.) The most recent ICEF i-graduate Agent Barometer survey found that language programmes – especially those lasting 2 to 4 weeks – remain the most popular programme into which agents are placing students, accounting for 81% of placements.
When speaking with families about the benefits of bilingual or multilingual elementary or secondary school education, recruiters could reference findings such as these (from a report by US-based The National Education Association) for learning a second language in primary school:

Enhances academic progress in other subjects;
Narrows achievement gaps;
Benefits basic skills development;
Benefits higher order, abstract and creative thinking;
Enriches and enhances cognitive development;
Enhances a student’s sense of achievement;
Helps students score higher on standardised tests;
Promotes cultural awareness and competency;
Improves chances of college acceptance, achievement and attainment;
Enhances career opportunities;
Benefits understanding and security in community and society.
Or these links from Science Daily:

Bilingual children switch tasks faster than speakers of a single language
Speaking multiple languages can influence children’s emotional development
Language learning makes the brain grow
Bilingualism fine-tunes hearing, enhances attention
As for adult students, there is a wealth of research out there now about the career-related benefits of becoming proficient in at least one other language than one’s native tongue. For example, in India, a research study reported the following:

The UK’s official graduate careers website, Prospects, asserts:

And in the US, the Council on Foreign Relations argues that “the promotion of foreign language instruction should be a national priority,” noting:

Interestingly, ICEF Monitor reported last year that Asia and Latin America are also leading the way in terms of student enrolment forecasts. It should not be difficult to find research to bolster the importance of schools that prioritise foreign language proficiency, and it may well be that there is no need to make the case, as students and their families will already be convinced.

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Cognitive Benefit of Lifelong Bilinguilism

Still have doubts about the benefits of learning a second language? Indifferent about your local public school system’s decision to cut your child’s foreign language program? If you haven’t read the article I posted on January 9 about the benefits of bilinguilism, I strongly suggest taking a look at this one from Science Daily, January 5, 2013. It might change your mind about the importance of foreign language learning! I certainly hope so.

Jan. 5, 2013 — Seniors who have spoken two languages since childhood are faster than single-language speakers at switching from one task to another, according to a study published in the January 9 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. Compared to their monolingual peers, lifelong bilinguals also show different patterns of brain activity when making the switch, the study found.

The findings suggest the value of regular stimulating mental activity across the lifetime. As people age, cognitive flexibility — the ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected circumstances — and related “executive” functions decline. Recent studies suggest lifelong bilingualism may reduce this decline — a boost that may stem from the experience of constantly switching between languages. However, how brain activity differs between older bilinguals and monolinguals was previously unclear.

In the current study, Brian T. Gold, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of healthy bilingual seniors (ages 60-68) with that of healthy monolingual seniors as they completed a task that tested their cognitive flexibility. The researchers found that both groups performed the task accurately. However, bilingual seniors were faster at completing the task than their monolingual peers despite expending less energy in the frontal cortex — an area known to be involved in task switching.

“This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively stimulating activity — in this case, speaking multiple languages on a daily basis — and brain function,” said John L. Woodard, PhD, an aging expert from Wayne State University, who was not involved with the study. “The authors provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals.”
The researchers also measured the brain activity of younger bilingual and monolingual adults while they performed the cognitive flexibility task.
Overall, the young adults were faster than the seniors at performing the task. Being bilingual did not affect task performance or brain activity in the young participants. In contrast, older bilinguals performed the task faster than their monolingual peers and expended less energy in the frontal parts of their brain.
“This suggests that bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors,” Gold said. “Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging.”

This research was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

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Students Committed to Foreign Language Learning Even When School System is Not

Students and teachers at a Tulsa, OK, high school show their commitment to foreign language learning after budget cuts forced early morning option. Here’s the article by Andrea Eger for, January 19, 2013:

Since budget cuts forced Memorial High School to say “au revoir” to staffing positions for advanced foreign languages, getting up at the crack of dawn is one of the only options for students who want to earn credits in French 3 or 4.

Longtime Memorial French teacher Brenda Brake became the school’s only Spanish teacher this year, as well, but she volunteers her own time three days a week to offer advanced classes outside of the normal school day.

“I had 30 kids who wanted to enroll this year, and I could not stand to throw away all of their efforts over the last two years,” said “Madame Brake,” as her students call her.

Nearly an hour before sunrise Friday, Brake arrived to turn the lights on in her classroom and cue up her Smart Board. A few minutes after 7, she made the trek back downstairs to open the still-locked front doors for the last couple of students to straggle in.

The youngest in the class is freshman Elie Benarrous, who is continuing the education he began in Eisenhower International School’s French immersion program and followed through with at Thoreau Demonstration Academy.

“It looks good on a college resume, plus, I could use it if I ever go back to Europe,” he said.

The state Legislature allocated the same amount of state aid to public schools as they received the previous year, but because student enrollment is up – primarily at online education programs and new charter schools – schools wound up with less.

Tulsa Public Schools was initially faced with the prospect of slashing as many as 150 teaching positions for 2012-13 because of the end of federal Jobs Bill funding and declining enrollment from the conversion of two school sites to charter schools. But over the summer, Superintendent Keith Ballard managed to raise nearly $1.82 million in private donations to save 45 teaching positions and hold open a slew of vacant administrative positions to fund 19 more.

Asked about the situation at Memorial, Ballard said it is representative of the toll that years of state aid reductions has taken on course offerings and class sizes across the state.

“The public needs to remember that we went through extreme budget cuts and no funding has been restored, despite the fact that there is money in the state coffers. We are not even (receiving funding) at the 2008 level, and it’s 2013, for crying out loud,” he said.

Brake, who has worked for Tulsa Public Schools for 18 years, said she could never have fathomed the decline in staffing levels she has witnessed lately.

“This is my 10th year at Memorial,” she said. “When I came here, there were three Spanish teachers, an ELL (English Language Learner) teacher, a sign language teacher, a French teacher, a German teacher and a Latin teacher. Now all we have left are the classes I teach in French and Spanish and a Latin teacher across the hall.”

Numerous studies have demonstrated that learning a second language holds benefits for a student’s linguistic abilities, as well as their cognitive and creative abilities. Students who succeed in advanced foreign language courses also earn extra points toward their grade-point average and a special cord to be worn at graduation.

Brake also believes that the cuts threaten her students’ professional potential and narrow their world views.

“I took a class in ninth grade, and it completely changed my life because it opened up a window on the world that I had no idea existed before I studied French,” said Brake, who has traveled extensively and even lived for a time in France. “If you don’t know something about other parts of the world now, you’re really at a disadvantage. You can work in a foreign country through a computer now.

“All of the foreign countries stress language study, so we are really hindering our own students from advancing in our global society.”

Although she praises her students for their tenacity, they say she is the one who deserves credit.

“This shows the dedication she has to the students,” said junior Phillip VanDusen.

Zane Leach, also a junior, added, “She definitely deserves the title ‘Teacher of the Year,’ ” a schoolwide honor Brake received this year.

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Bilinguals Have Faster Brains

If this article doesn’t demonstrate the importance of learning a second language, I don’t know what else will!

Article by Sydney Lupkin for, January 9, 2013:

Speaking two languages can actually help offset some effects of aging on the brain, a new study has found.

Researchers tested how long it took participants to switch from one cognitive task to another, something that’s known to take longer for older adults, said lead researcher, Brian Gold, a neuroscientist at the University of Kentucky. As he spoke to from his cell phone, he said he was also in a grocery store choosing between gala and granny smith apples – a perfect example of switching between cognitive tasks in everyday life.
“It has big implications these days because our population is aging more and more,” Gold said. “Seniors are living longer, and that’s a good thing, but it’s only a good thing to the extent that their brains are healthy.”

Gold’s team compared task-switching speeds for younger and older adults, knowing they would find slower speeds in the older population because of previous studies. However, they found that older adults who spoke two languages were able to switch mental gears faster than those who didn’t.

But don’t go out and buy Rosetta Stone just yet. The study only looked at life-long bilinguals, defined in the study as people who had spoken a second language daily since they were at least 10 years old.

First, Gold and his team asked 30 people, who were either bilingual or monolingual, to look at a series of colored shapes and respond with the name of each shape by pushing a button. Then, they presented the participants with a similar series of colored shapes and asked them to respond with what colors the shapes were by pushing a button. Finally, researchers presented participants with a series of colored shapes, but they mixed prompts for either a shape or a color to test participants’ task-switching times.

The bilingual people were able to respond faster to the shifting prompts.

Researchers then gathered 80 more people for a second experiment: 20 young bilinguals, 20 young monolinguals, 20 old bilinguals, and 20 old monolinguals. This time, researchers used fMRI scans to monitor brain activity during the same shape- and color-identifying tasks. Gold and his team found that bilingual people were not only able to switch tasks faster – they had different brain activity than their monolingual peers.

“It allows a sort of window into how the brains of people who have different cognitive processing abilities and are processing the same stimuli in different ways,” said Kristina Visscher, a neurobologist at the University of Alabama School of Medicine who did not work on the study.

Visscher called bilingualism a “beautiful natural experiment,” because people grow up speaking two languages, and studies have shown that they reap certain cognitive benefits from switching between languages and determining which to respond with based on what’s going on around them. The University of Kentucky researchers took it a step further by using brain imaging, which she said was “exciting.”

Gold said he grew up in Montreal, where he spoke French at school and English at home, prompting relatives to question whether his French language immersion would somehow hinder his ability to learn English.

“Until very recently, learning a second language in childhood was thought of as dangerous,” he said. “Actually, it’s beneficial.”

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