Why first and second language skills are a benefit to learners and society

by Guest Blogger, 21 April 2021
two speech bubbles showing communication

First and second language skills are essential for all learners, including English as the language of international communication. This is one of the outline principles set out by Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press that we believe will help all those interested in continuing the debate around the future of teaching, learning and assessment.

First and second language skills are a benefit to learners and, in today’s globalised world, are an important benefit to society too. Here Freelance Language and Assessment Specialist Kirsten Sutton explores the many advantages of bilingualism and how bilingual speakers can gain a different perspective of the world.

A version of this blog was originally published on the Cambridge University Press World of Better Learning blog .

Outdated views on bilingualism

For much of the 20th century, bilingualism was considered detrimental to personal development as it was believed that there was only space for one language in a child’s brain. It was assumed speaking a minority language at home would impede integration in general and academic success in particular. Unfortunately, it is still very common to hear people complaining at speakers of a minority language in the playground. Or schools telling parents to stop speaking their own language at home to aid their children’s integration.

When you live in a language not your own, no matter how fluent you are, your accent is almost always noticeable. You often lack the nuances and registers of an L1 speaker. Consequently, the choice to avoid speaking your first language in public is often not only an educational one, but also a social one as it stigmatises the speaker as ‘the other’. As a German living in England, I often felt shame when speaking German to my daughters in public; and I still do, especially when calling out ‘Achtung’ before crossing the road.

Advantages of first and second language skills

Speaking your home language should, however, not be a source of shame. Far from it. Bilingualism can affect positive change in society. It furthers an ability to empathise, to see a situation from another’s perspective and thus fosters tolerance towards others. We should, therefore, not only embrace it but actively encourage it.

Numerous advantages of bilingualism have been discovered since the 1960s. In 1962, Peal and Lambert’s research concluded:

intellectually, [the bilingual child’s] experience with two language systems seems to have left him [or her] with a mental flexibility, a superiority in concept formation, a more diversified set of mental abilities.

Aptitude tests in the 1970s and 80s revealed that bilinguals were more competent at problem solving, meta-linguistic awareness and critical thinking. Neurologists and cognitive scientists revealed enhanced cognitive skills in the brain’s frontal lobes of bilingual speakers that support high-level thought, memory, attention and multitasking.

In 2015 Athanasopoulos et al. suggest that a second language can play an important unconscious role in framing perception:

By having another language, you have an alternative vision of the world. You can listen to music from only one speaker, or you can listen in stereo … It’s the same with language.¹

This is an important advance as it reveals bilingual speakers are able to entertain different perspectives and go back and forth. These differing perspectives naturally help shape the language of the culture. Through learning a language, bilingual speakers subconsciously pick up these perspectives. They give them new ways of looking at the world and their surroundings.

Benefits of bilingualism to society

These findings clearly show that bilingualism is more than just of personal benefit. It provides a significant social advantage. In an age of borderless communication, it seems outdated to be limited to one language only. Languages help us make sense of the world and can even influence the way we see and describe it. They are the key to cultural and social identity, a community’s history and shared experience. The open-mindedness and cultural sensitivity that accompanies bilingualism leads to people becoming bicultural. This is a significant advantage in today’s globalised world and a vital skill when engaging with new cultures and people. Those with first and second language skills can positively affect their community because of their ability to engage more easily with members of different linguistic groups.

In addition, bilingualism comes with continual assessment of social situations. Whether bilingual people know they are doing it or not, they are constantly assessing the situations they are in and making decisions on the language they use. This continual social awareness also contributes to adaptability. It allows bilingual people to be better able to cope with changes in their lives and surroundings.

Promoting bilingualism in education

So perhaps celebrating bilingualism is the response to today’s world in which nationalists, protectionists and isolationists are gaining ground again. If you are monolingual, your world has clearer limits and promoting bilingualism in education and society is perceived as a threat or even betrayal. The opportunity to see the world with different eyes, to gain a different perspective and be more culturally competent is lost.

As educators, we are in the business of education. Let’s recognise the complexity of learners’ identities and celebrate their differences by integrating students’ heritage in the curriculum. Let’s help grow the minds of the young by avoiding stereotypes and misconceptions in order for them to take a stand against the thriving racism and inequality in today’s societies.

About the author: 

Kirsten Sutton Blogger

Kirsten Sutton holds a Master’s degree in English language teaching and Political Science from the Free University of Berlin. As well as a Master’s in British Studies from Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. 

Since 2007, Kirsten has worked in language testing and assessment. First as Research Manager for Pearson and since 2013 as freelance Language and Assessment Specialist for companies such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and the British Council.


¹ Athanasopoulos P, Bylund E, Montero-Melis G, et al. Two languages, two minds: flexible cognitive processing driven by language of operation. Psychol Sci. 2015 26(4): 518-526.

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