International companies would do well to prepare to serve a new generation of bilinguals in the future. I predict that we’ll see a huge growth in the number of bilinguals, even in the stubbornly monolingual U.S. Why? The incredible mental advantages of bilingualism, the rising number of bilingual children, and the Chinese government.
Let me explain.
First, while in the past bilingualism was thought to inhibit learning, several recent studies have revealed the exact opposite. Essentially, as the New York Times put it, “being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter.” It improves cognitive abilities unrelated to language and even protects against dementia. And the earlier you learn a second language the better.
Language education in the U.S. is still pretty dismal, however. According to Scientific American, only a quarter of elementary schools offer some kind of language learning. Compare this to Europe where bilingualism is strong and growing. A recent European report shows that from 2005-2010, the percentage of European students learning a foreign language rose from 67.5% to 79.2%. Most European kids start learning another language at ages 6 to 9. (In Belgium, it starts at 3!). The most popular language to learn was English, followed by German and French.
Approximately 50% of European adults are bilingual, compared to only 9% of U.S. adults, reports Scientific American. But another stat shows that will change: 21% of U.S. children speak another language at home, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Put that together with the bilingual benefit studies and so-called helicopter parents who want every educational advantage for their kids, and we should see a push for more second language learning in the U.S., at least in private schools and lessons, if not in public school classrooms.
And the Chinese government is here to help! ABC recently reported that China and its Hanban/Confucius Institute is helping to fund Mandarin teaching programs in nearly 300 U.S. primary and middle schools and 75 universities. It’s part of a worldwide effort spanning 88 countries to promote the Chinese language and culture. In the U.S., the programs are not without controversy as some more paranoid people worry about indoctrinating children into communism. But I tend to agree with David Worthington from Smartplanet that this is more of a cultural exchange like “the Chinese equivalent of the U.S. Peace Corp.”
It’s also a smart marketing move on China’s part. More Chinese speakers mean more visitors to China, more people who want to watch Chinese movies, read Chinese literature, and buy a whole range of Chinese-made goods. Of course, Mandarin has a long way to go before eclipsing Spanish as the most popular second language in the U.S., but it’s a trend worth watching. USC noted that enrollments in Chinese language courses grew 51% from 2001-2006, and the Hanban/Confucius Institute didn’t even start until 2004.
So get ready for the bilingual future. More Europeans might be speaking English, but the Americans are learning Mandarin.