The bilingual advantage

A second language can give kids a head start that lasts for life. Photo of an IGS student via the IGS Facebook page.
A second language can give kids a head start that lasts for life. Photo of an IGS student via the IGS Facebook page.

BY FRANCESCA MUSCATELLO @HipsterCat_Says

Finding the right path for your child can be a decision that many parents find daunting when choosing a school. Would your child thrive more in a language focused school than in a sports orientated one? This is the problem that many parents face when choosing an appropriate school for their children.


The International Grammar School (IGS) is a music and language school established in 1984 and founded by Reg St. Leon. His idea was to open a school where the focus was on music, arts and languages. The school’s eclectically-designed building stands on Kelly Street in Ultimo. With a mixture of heritage and modern architecture, the building boasts style and flair. One mightn’t even know that behind the big purple gates can be found a school unlike many other schools in Sydney.

Throughout primary school students will spend approximately a quarter of their time studying languages. Does this emphasis on language make for a greater advantage for bilingual children over kids that only studied their native language throughout school? Former student Alex McDonald started at IGS in 1993 and studied through until 2001. Alex has Italian heritage, and his parents were keen for him to learn to speak Italian as a second language. After hearing about IGS they were determined to get him a spot in the increasingly popular school. After learning that the spaces for Italian were all filled up, they settled on German as a second language for their son instead.

Alex is a well mannered, intelligent and very driven young man and has travelled to many countries around the world since finishing his studies. He says that one of the major benefits of attending a language school was his ability to go overseas on exchange and finish two units of his HSC by year 10. “As most of us were fluent in our second language by Year 6, we were offered the option to do international exams that would later contribute to our HSC final mark,” Alex says. “I was lucky enough to have two of my twelve units done by the beginning of Year 10 and lots of other kids were afforded the same opportunity, either lightening their workload in year 12 or giving them the advantage to earn extra marks.”

Alex was also fortunate enough to do a six-month exchange in Germany in Year 10 as part of a billeting program put in place by IGS. “Studying in a different country really opened my eyes to different ways of life,” he says. “I was given opportunities that some of my friends from other schools were not. I grew up a lot over the six months not only being away from home, but being immersed into a different culture. I was encouraged to use German almost every day all day, which added more knowledge to the years of studying it as a second language.”

So once school is finished and these young people have entered the big wide world, has it benefited them over children who attended a school that only offered English? Alex says that one of the key benefits for him was to be able to continue his studies at university, coupling a business degree with international studies. “I qualify for many more jobs than my peers, as I’m not restricted to only working for an English speaking company.”

There are many advantages in learning a second or third language. Recent studies have shown that learning a language other than your native tongue can help create a greater blood flow to the brain and assist in strengthening connections between different regions of the brain. Bilingual brains may even be more resistant to damage. However that does not always imply that having a child who excels at sports or maths will not also receive advantages throughout their education.

Benefits will come from any form of stimulation for a growing child, be it learning other languages, joining a sports team, playing an instrument or being part of the mathlete’s club. In the end the choice comes down to the parents choices and the growing needs of the child as he or she develops.