Multi-Language Speakers: An Advantage for Children at Pharo School Kigali

by Moureen Mutiso

It is a truism that the best time to learn languages is during childhood. This is due to their cognitive abilities, which include a strong ability to imitate sounds, patterns, and language structures. Younger children tend to have less inhibition and are more likely to take risks when speaking a new language. What is arguably more interesting is the additional non-language benefits that accrue to children who are bilingual from an early age, something we look at below.

In line, with our mission to offer locally relevant and globally competitive education, Pharo Schools offer a curriculum that is a blend between the local/national curriculum of the native country where the school operates with a well-established and international curriculum. In addition to this, our curriculum includes relevant aspects of the local curriculum, that ensure our graduates are deeply rooted within their home community. This includes, but is not limited to local language, civics, history and religious studies. Across all Pharo Schools, we encourage children to remain confident and knowledgeable in their mother tongue, whilst also learning lessons in English to ensure that they are equipped with language skills which they need for their future.

A good example of this is Pharo School Kigali. Here our team prioritizes nurturing bilingual students and ensures that every child can speak French and English comfortably. The average third grader at Pharo School Kigali can speak Kinyarwanda, French, and English. This allows the child to remain in touch with their mother tongue whilst still gaining other essential language skills. From an early age, at Pharo School Kigali, students are exposed to both French and English through interactive teaching methods and engaging classroom activities. They are taught grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation skills in both languages, enabling them to communicate effectively.

Crucially, being bilingual from such an early age can also offer a child other benefits. Popular books such as The Bilingual Edge (King & Mackey, 2009), and articles such as The Power of the Bilingual Brain (TIME Magazine; Kluger, 2013) have touted the potential benefits of early bilingualism. In the present-day globalized world, speaking a couple of languages has become increasingly common. Whether it's due to immigration, travel, or simply exposure to different cultures, this linguistic diversity offers a range of advantages for children, both in terms of personal development and cognitive abilities. According to a study done by the University of Michigan, bilingual children may have a superior ability to focus on one thing and change their response, easily indicating “cognitive flexibility.” Both traits require self-control, a very desirable trait in the early childhood classroom as well as in life.

Being bilingual can offer numerous benefits and advantages for students. It has been shown to be associated with creativity and cognitive flexibility. Bilingualism also improves communication skills, enabling children to interact with different cultures and people from diverse backgrounds.

Furthermore, being bilingual opens a world of career opportunities. Today, proficiency in multiple languages is highly sought-after in the job market, although AI applications to languages might temper this somewhat. whilst AI tools like chatGPT and apps like Google Translate can translate languages, they are not efficient enough to paint a full picture. Bilingual people may be able to pick up on body language and certain intonations or contacts that change the meaning of a sentence or phrase. Context is important because machine Translation can’t understand context. People can understand what you mean when you say things like “Yes, but no. I mean, yes and no…I don’t know it’s really complicated.” However, that’s a very complicated series of sentences that are all related to one another. A piece of technology is not likely to realise that these statements are all connected, or that you’re talking about a subject that isn’t in these sentences. Therefore, employers value candidates who can speak multiple languages as it demonstrates effective communication and cultural understanding.

Having family settings that are bilingual allows children to learn multiple languages and gain a deeper understanding of different cultures. They are also able to learn more about their language and the languages of others. In fact, there is also evidence that a bilingual child is better able to learn additional languages in life. This gives them a huge advantage in the classroom and beyond. Research has shown that bilingual children tend to have enhanced problem-solving abilities, better memory skills, and a heightened ability to switch between tasks. These cognitive advantages can positively influence their academic performance.

Speaking more than one language can be a significant advantage for children, both in terms of their personal development and cognitive capabilities. Their innate ability to learn languages combined with a supportive environment and dedicated practice can lead to remarkable progress in language learning. Furthermore, the cognitive benefits and cultural exposure associated with being bilingual or multilingual provide lifelong advantages, opening doors to new opportunities and enriching their educational experiences. Finally, in a world where AI is taking over, skills such as emotional intelligence are at a premium, hence the fact that there is evidence that bilingual children tend to find it easier to put themselves in other people’s shoes, by virtue of the early development of their ability to change language lenses.

Therefore, at Pharo Foundation we have encouraged children to speak multiple languages in all our schools across East Africa. For instance, in Kigali we nurture bilingual students from a very young age, the school ensures that every child graduates with the ability to speak both English and French comfortably, as well as have efficient skills in Kinyarwanda. We prepare students for the challenges of the modern world and open a world of opportunities for their future.