Janak Shah, 12, can recite Japanese poems and write sentences in German, even as he scores top marks in mathematics and science. While Janak has been going to a private tutor twice a week for Japanese since he was nine years old, he has been learning German, which his school started teaching in 2012, for the past one year. Jaimin, Janak’s father, a software engineer, said, “Being able to speak and write in an Asian and European language will give him an edge over thousands of others in his career,” said Shah.
Linguists said apart from improving career prospects, learning more languages also helps children improve mental skills. According to Preeti Handa, a linguistics trainer based in Pune, those who speak more than two languages have better cognitive abilities than their peers. “The strongest effect of bilingualism is reflected in general intelligence. There are studies that show being bilingual can reduce the risk of dementia,” said Handa.
While schools have been offering languages such as French and German for a long time to senior secondary students, many institutions have introduced languages such as Mandarin, Spanish and Japanese from middle school or even lower. RN Podar School, Santacruz started offering Mandarin to students from Class 6 onwards two years ago. More than 80 students have chosen the option, said Avnita Bir, principal.
It was the Union HRD ministry’s initiative to enhance diplomatic ties with China that paved the way for the language’s introduction in Mumbai schools. “The Central Board of Secondary Education had selected some schools to offer Mandarin as an optional language to students. The decision was the result of a pact between Indian and Chinese governments to promote the language in India,” said Bir.
International schools have been at the forefront of this trend. Oberoi International School, Goregaon, offers students as young as eight years old an option to choose Spanish, French or Hindi as their second language after English. “Spanish is the most preferred option among students,” said Nadia Fuzier, head of modern languages, Oberoi International School.
Similarly, Nahar International School in Chandivli, which offers only French as a foreign language option to students from Class 3 onward, will introduce Mandarin, German and Spanish from next year.
However, experts felt foreign language training is not just about learning the language, but is also a cultural experience. According to Fuzier, learning a language also includes learning its culture, history and ethos, which is why this year more than 70 students, parents and teachers from Oberoi International School spent their spring break in France.
While these schools have included foreign languages as a part of the curriculum, others have begun offering them as an after-class activity or add-on course like NSS Hillsprings International School, which offers the first level of Mandarin as an extra class.
Advantages of learning another language
Keeps brain sharp
According to a 2014 study by the University of Edinburgh, learning to speak a second language could help keep the brain sharp even in old age
The study showed a pattern of slower mental decline among the bilingual in a group of 835 people born in 1936. Among them, a total of 262 participants could communicate in at least one language other than English and of those, 195 learnt the second language before the age of 18
Researchers found that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities in their 70s compared to their peers
Increases attention span
Polyglots (people who can speak multiple languages) tend to be good at paying attention in a wide variety of ways, especially when performing visual tasks such as searching a scene or a list for a specific name or object and improved multitasking thanks to the practice of mentally switching between one’s native and foreign language while learning the language
Biligual people better at processing sounds
Another study by researchers from Northwestern University in the US found that among 48 student volunteers, of whom 23 were bilingual/multilingual, were subject to different noises and sounds
The study found the multilingual group was far superior in processing sounds and patterns compared to others
Initiatives by Indian schools
Indian schools are now introducing several new foreign languages apart from French and German to students right from Class 3
RN Podar School, Santacruz, offers Mandarin to its Class 6 students. More than 80 students have signed up for it
More than 900 students of Oberoi International School, Goregaon, have taken up Spanish and French as their second language
Shishuvan School, Matunga, offers French as a third language. It also has a ‘Language Mall’ on campus, which offers foreign language training to students in languages such as Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin
China's rise makes Mandarin popular
Mandarin can be tough to learn, but children studying the language said its knowledge could be a skill in the future. “The grammar and phonetics are very different compared to English or other languages. But since my ambition is to become an IT engineer, the language will help me in my career,” said Chaitanya Lodha, Class 7 student, DY Patil International School
Nazia Vasi, founder and CEO of Inchin Closer, which works closely with several schools for building their Mandarin curriculum, said more than 300 students of various schools are learning Mandarin under them.