When we first began Think Bilingual Austin, we did a quick survey asking various bilinguals from different backgrounds what bilingualism meant to them.  The overarching message we received was that being bilingual enriched people’s lives and gave them more social and economic opportunities. Bilingualism allowed the respondents to connect with others, learn other perspectives and cultures, break down barriers, remain connected with family and heritage, and succeed in their professional career.

So as we move forward in the school year, let’s ask ourselves again why bilingual education is important.  Obviously, many of the same reasons listed above apply. However, we can argue that most of these benefits have always been known to anyone wanting to be bilingual; and yet, in only recent years have we seen an uptick in the public’s interest for more extensive bilingual education. Following years of decline in second language instruction in elementary and middle school education, we now see schools adopting a dual-language model to promote bilingualism (rather than just English as a Second Language). Growth in bilingual early education, bilingual private schools and after-school bilingual programs has also been significant. What are the driving reasons behind this increase in demand for bilingual education?  Why has  bilingual education become so important?

Our world is getting smaller:

With increased mobility and a more integrated global economy, communities that were once isolated are now having to figure out how to work with people from other cultures and backgrounds.  Being bilingual (and multicultural) better equips individuals with not only language skills but also important social skills needed to work with others from varying cultures and backgrounds.  Such skills include the ability to be more perceptive of others, to be more empathetic and to communicate more effectively.

The Global Economy Demands The Skills of a Bilingual Workforce:

Global markets are becoming increasingly more integrated, which also increases the need to have bilinguals who are able to conduct business and work in global markets. Research has already suggested that companies are less likely to layoff a bilingual employee and new research has shown that the demand for bilinguals in the workforce is rising. Moreover, cross-cultural competency, transdisciplinarity, sense-making, cognitive load management and social intelligence, all products of multicultural bilingual education, are listed as some of the most important skills needed in the future. Thus, investing in bilingual education can prepare one with the needed skills to be more competitive in the global workforce.

A Real Need for Global Citizens:

Pressing global issues such as climate change, cyber security and social unrest require that the citizens of both today and tomorrow be able to engage and effectively navigate these and other complex global issues.  Bilingual education can better prepare our citizens to be more actively engaged in these issues.  Included in the skills needed for the global workforce, bilingual education also enables individuals to have access to a greater source of information, be more effective communicators and collaborators and have a broader global perspective.  As such, bilingual education prepares individuals to be active global citizens capable of addressing these and other future global challenges.

Bilingual Education Develops Important Cognitive Skills:

Bilingual education develops important cognitive skills such as problem solving, logic, critical thinking and creativity because it exercises your brain and forces you to think about how you can express and effectively convey your thoughts with the vocabulary you possess in each language. These cognitive skills are transferable across disciplines and may even be one of the reasons why being bilingual helps to delay cognitive decline and the symptoms of Alzheimer. These are also the same cognitive skills that experts and educators say are becoming  increasingly important to have in order to successfully participate in our society and the workforce.

Bilingual Education Connects Individuals to their Heritage:

Bilingual education connects families and communities that share a common heritage and legitimizes their acceptance in the greater community.  While it is not uncommon for migrant communities to develop close bonds and speak only their native language, the language is usually lost over generations with subsequent generations sometimes struggling with cultural identity and being accepted  in society at large.  However, bilingual education inherently expresses the importance of bilingualism and the acceptance of other cultures and perspective. This not only creates a sense of pride for individuals from different ethnic backgrounds but also legitimizes their belonging in our society and facilitates more active civic participation in the greater community.  By not feeling marginalized, such communities are then able to extend themselves more fully in society and in the democratic process.