Most, if not all, international schools in Singapore offer foreign language classes in Mandarin, and there are different options within the primary and secondary years to study German, Spanish, French and many other languages. Also, a small but growing number go beyond the daily hour of Mandarin to offer a truly bilingual or dual language education that immerses students in two languages.
Learning a new language is compulsory for most students up to the age of 16, whether taking I/GCSEs or following the IB Middle Years Programme; post-16, the IB Diploma Programme requires all students to study an additional language. And for very good reason. There are countless benefits to learning a second, third and fourth language, and Singapore has successfully prioritised languages alongside STEM subjects for many years. By comparison, language skills in the UK, where languages have not been compulsory in England’s curriculum beyond the age of 14 since 2004, are in decline.
Language teachers and leaders at Tanglin Trust School, the International French School (IFS), Chatsworth International School, and St Joseph’s Institution International share their top five reasons for studying a language, from Early Years through to Sixth Form.
Alex Bosch, Head of Languages and Classics at Tanglin Trust School says that learning a new language helps students to develop important life skills, such as problem-solving skills, improved memory, concentration, and mental flexibility.
“In a language lesson, students are presented with opportunities to grow their skill set beyond what is obviously in front of them. They break down text with challenging vocabulary requiring them to use their working memory and extrapolating from it.
“They will constantly make mistakes and are supported in understanding how they feel about making mistakes, managing those feelings, and learning from the experience. They present to their peers using a medium they find challenging, they learn how to commit content to short and long-term memory, they learn the value of accuracy and rigour, they problem solve and collaborate, they take risks and learn to deal with the consequences.”
Wang Xiaoyan, Head of Department, LOTE (Languages Other Than English) at Chatsworth International School, adds that languages develop key communication skills.
“Language is about communication; it is about understanding and being understood in expressing information, knowledge, thoughts, feelings and beliefs. It is therefore far more than just developing proficiency in speaking, listening, reading and writing; it is knowing how to use language appropriately in different contexts and situations, which demands critical thinking and an understanding of the culture of the language.”
Employees who can speak more than one language add value to businesses, says Mr Bosch (Tanglin). He says that students who can speak common languages like Spanish, Mandarin or French are in high demand as they have the ability to communicate directly with international clients, which can set a company apart from the competition.
“Being bilingual or multi-lingual sets candidates apart from other contenders. It also helps one understand unique cultural nuances that can help build professional relationships."
As Mr Bosch explains, languages help students to develop a wide range of life skills.
“Bilingual people tend to have heightened listening skills and can read subtle nuances in more than one language. The process of learning a new language has a way of converting your thinking into a more ‘out of the box’ perspective.
"Bilingual employees are often better at multi-tasking and organisation. Much of the success in business and sales comes from confidence. When you can easily converse with clients and key stakeholders in their own language, it puts you on a more even footing giving you the push that you need to ace your job.”
Sebastien Barnard, Communications & Events Director at International French School (IFS), says that a multilingual education is critical for preparing students for today’s ever-changing world.
“What is clear to us is that yesterday's solutions won't solve tomorrow's problems. Students develop agile and flexible minds through an enriching bilingual programmes. Bilingual and multilingual students can better manage multiple tasks, solving problems across verbal and non-verbal domains as they capitalise on what they know in one area to address another.
“Bilingual students develop more ideas and are more creative in their thinking across more categories of possibility when problem-solving. According to several studies, learning multiple languages provides students with a superior ability to concentrate, solve problems and focus. They exhibit better mental flexibility and multi-tasking skills.
“Bilingual students have better attention and task-switching capacities than their monolingual counterparts. This is due to their developed ability to inhibit one language while using another. Bilingual students often perform better on conflict management tasks as they can better manage and ignore irrelevant information. All these attributes of a multilingual education help prepare students for their future careers.”
SJI International highlights the importance of students studying both their home language and an additional language. Ronak Punjabi, Head of Languages (High School) explains:
“We recognise the strength and the great benefits of learning one’s home language as well as deepening understanding of one’s own culture. The home language is an integral part of the student’s identity, and a strong connection to a home culture leads to better self-esteem, intercultural awareness and international-mindedness.
“The study of additional languages not only enables our students to communicate effectively in an increasingly global context, but it also empowers them to understand the cultures of other people.
"Through language learning, we expose students to various societies and people who speak and use these languages, thereby providing students with a more holistic understanding and appreciation of other languages. In short, our aim is for students to genuinely feel that the world is their oyster!”
As Mr Bosch (Tanglin) says, bilingualism can open up a world of opportunities.
“The chance to travel to exotic locations on behalf of your company is afforded to all of us regardless of our language proficiency but not much can beat how genuine and impactful relationships are when they are built around a common language. First, at an obvious basic level of communication but also in making our interlocutor feel engaged and their cultural idiosyncrasies acknowledged. Forming relationships on a global scale can add a factor of excitement, enrichment and efficiency to your career.”
Mr Barnard (IFS) adds: “Learning more than one language enables new conversations and new experiences.
“At IFS, we believe that bilingual students exhibit greater empathy in communication with others. This comes from the perspectives they gain in speaking another language and learning to interpret meaning through subtle cues.
"As a result, bilingual students outperform monolinguals in a range of cognitive and social tasks. They can read other people better, creating greater empathy and are thus open-minded to new experiences. We use languages as a lens to help students understand different cultures, think with a global perspective, and navigate the broader world around them.”
And Ms Xiaoyan (Chatsworth) highlights the importance of language courses in the IB Middle Years Programme and Diploma Programme.
“Language acquisition courses in the MYP and IBDP are designed to provide students with the opportunity to develop insights into the features, processes, and craft of language (language skills) and the concept of culture; they learn and appreciate that there are diverse ways of living, behaving and viewing the world (intercultural understanding).
"Due to the nature of the language acquisition course, learning a language helps to foster an understanding of the customs and traditions, lifestyles, religions, arts and history of the people associated with that language and to develop cultural sensitivity, international awareness and a global mindset.”
According to Mr Bosch (Tanglin), “the learning of subject-specific knowledge as in physics, geography or mathematics cannot happen without linguistic mediation.
“Without adequate language competences, students can neither properly follow the content that is being taught, nor communicate with others about it. He or she will, at best be able to recall and repeat without understanding and will eventually fail in examinations and other real-life, practical evaluations.
"The level of stretch and challenge that learning a language has on memory is phenomenal and the benefits that of exercising memory to the degree that our brains experience when dealing with listening or having to speak in a foreign language are enormous and permeate to other disciplines.”
Mr Punjabi (SJI International) explains how students learn the communicative skills necessary for learning a second language in other parts of the school curriculum.
“For example, as part of one of our Grade 9 foreign language units, students complement their Service Learning (one of the school’s core pillars of learning) by proposing an imaginary week-long trip to support a real NGO or local charitable initiative in a target language country.
"As part of their proposal, which they write in the target language, students must identify which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals they will be targeting, and how their efforts will benefit the community with which they will work.”
At IFS, students can learn French, English and Mandarin from Kindergarten so they can “take advantage of the plasticity of the young student's brain.”
While research suggests that the critical age for learning a new language as a native speaker is between two and four years old, Mr Bosch (Tanglin) says there isn’t a hard and fast rule where age is concerned.
“Many of our students who take a second or third language in their Junior or Middle school years have also gone on to ace their language examinations. The key is that the child likes the language and also has a platform to practice and use the language often, if not daily.”
And at SJI International, Mr Punjabi says language continuity will help students to achieve the highest possible level of proficiency.
“That said, many of our students who are able to drop the additional language they have been studying after IGCSE do go on to thrive in one of our intensive language ab initio courses, where they learn a new language from scratch over the course of the two-year IB Diploma Programme.”