Over the past two weeks, I found myself in four big airports. Though I did not have a chance to actually visit the cities in which these airports are located (I was merely there to catch connecting flights), I did have the chance to observe how people communicate when they find themselves in settings where there are thousands of people from different ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It is in such instances that people realize the power of language, which can either help them communicate or become a barrier and stall them from achieving an immediate and practical goal. Whether they need to find their gate, communicate with an officer or ask information about delayed or cancelled flights, language becomes vital.
I was recently teaching an ESL class of intermediate-level adults when the topic of being bilingual/multilingual came up; we’d been listening to a news story about how being bilingual boosts brainpower and decreases the chance of memory problems later in life. When I asked my students if they felt bilingual, I was sorry to see only a few of the two dozen students raise their hands. And yet, when I asked them to tell me whether they used English every day for communicative tasks like doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping and parent-teacher interviews, they all said yes.