“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
Language fuels our brains, frames our thoughts and makes complex communication possible.The words, expressions and quirks unique to our language largely define how we see and understand the world. If you’re monolingual, that world has clearer limits. But in an age of borderless communications and global travel, it seems almost archaic to be limited to one language only – even if you’re lucky enough to speak a global language like English or Spanish as your mother tongue.
But is being bilingual – speaking two languages – or even multilingual all it’s cut out to be? Does it really open up the world to us when Google Translate can do so in one easy click? Can it make economies more successful, help us earn higher salaries, maybe even lead to a happier, more connected life? And is it, as popular culture likes to claim, the secret to bringing up super smart children?
The myth of the bilingual baby
The brain is a remarkably malleable organ. From birth to old age, it develops, adapts, learns and re-learns, even after being injured. Language is an essential component of how the brain functions throughout life, but just like the brain itself, science still doesn’t have a full picture ofhow language works its magic on those neural pathways.
Although the old belief that babies whoare exposed to more than one language will end up confused, less intelligent or even schizophrenichas been debunked(yes, people really used to believe this), in recent years the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction: Books and articles tout bilingualism as a magic wand that will transform every child into a pint-sized, multitasking genius.
Dozens of studies, often quoted in the press, have claimed that, among other things, learning two languages in early childhood improves a whole host of cognitive abilities, making the brain more adept at switching between tasks, focusing in a busy environment, and remembering things. Learning and using two languages, these studies imply, clearly make children’s brains better.
But when a young researcher named Angela de Bruin, herself a bilingual, looked at hundreds of these studies in more detail, she discovered that these studies often significantly overstated the advantages, and presented inconclusive evidence as conclusive. The narrative that “bilingual is better” was becoming well established in popular culture, but de Bruin’s critical take on the research behind it showed that the benefits weren’t as clear-cut or universal as had been reported.
This is not to say that there are no benefits, and they may even turn out to be significant once the science catches up. And beyond purely cognitive skills, the social gains may be equally important. A recent study, for example, concluded that bilingual children, even kids merely exposed to a second language, were better at interpreting another person’s intentions by being able to see things from their perspective. This, the researchers inferred, made them more empathetic and better at understanding what the speaker meant.
An ability to empathize in this way provides a social advantage, but there is one more significant advantage to learning and speaking more than one language: It helps the brain stay healthy throughout life.
The truth about the bilingual brain
The brain, like any muscle, likes to exercise, and as it turns out, being fluent in two or more languagesis one of the best ways to keep it fit and keep degenerative disorders like dementia at bay. In fact, bilingual peopleshow noticeable symptoms of Alzheimer’snearly five year laterthan people who are monolingual and only speak one language.That’s significantly longer thanwhat the best modern medicines can offer.Amazingly enough, this advantage isnoticeable even in people who are illiterate.
True bilingualism also offers a more specific and distinct benefit to those whoregularly speak two or more languages at native level, and crucially, switch between them on a regular basis: The brains of Puerto Rican New Yorkers who used bothSpanish and English in their daily lives were indeed more nimble and agile than those of monolinguals. A study of Singaporeans who grew up with and used their native Asian tongue and English regularly came to a similar conclusion. Bilinguals who didn’t often switch between the two languages or only used one languages in a limited setting like home, showedfar fewer benefits.
Thecultural case is also worth examining, as is answering this important question: Does speaking more than one language help us feel more connected to the world, or as Charlemagneonce famouslyput it, “gain a second soul”?
The bicultural bonus
Languageshelp us make sense of the world and can even influence the way we see and describe it, as a recent study examining German and English speakers shows. There’s also no doubt that a Finnish and Arabic speaker, for example, would describe the world differently. After all, Arabic hardly needs 40 words or expressions related to snowlike Finnish does,and there’s likely to be a noticeable difference in howa Finndescribes, perhaps even experiences, a winter wonderland as a result. Indeed, learning another language not only helps us see the world from a different perspective, butit can even impact the way we think about it. As Dr. Panos Athanasopoulos, an expert in linguistics and bilingualism, puts it:“There’s an inextricable link between language, culture and cognition”.
Many studies support this, showing that people who speak different languages score higher in tests that measure open-mindedness and cultural sensitivity and have an easier time seeing things from a different (cultural) perspective. Bilingualism, therefore, seems to make people bicultural (or multicultural if you speak more than two languages), a significant advantage in today’s borderless world and a vital skill when traveling and getting to know new cultures and people.
Thebusiness case for bilingualism
The benefits of bilingualism don’t end there, however. Studies in Switzerland, Britain, Canada and India, as well as our very own EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), highlight the financial rewards associated with bilingualism or multilingualism at all levels.
A Swiss study, for example, noted that multilingualism is estimated to contribute 10 percent of Switzerland’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), proving that the language skills of workers open up more markets to Swiss businesses, greatly benefiting the economy as a whole. In Britain, on the other hand, the cost of the country’s stubborn attachment to the English language and unwillingness to significantly invest in learning other languages, has beenestimated to be as high as £48bn a year, or a staggering 3.5 percent of GDP.
For businesses, the language skills of their workers – be it a language spoken in a new market they’re expanding to, or English, the global lingua franca – are just as important. In an Economist Intelligence Unit study, quoted in the 2014 EF EPI, nearly 90 percent of managers saidthat bettercross-border communication would improve the bottom line, while another study noted that 79 percent of companies that had invested in the English skills of their workers, had seen an increase in sales.
At the individual level, the benefits of bilingualism are a little harder to quantify, mainly because they depend on industry, location and level of employment. A 2010 study in Canada, for example, showed that bilingual workers earned between 3-7 percent more than their monolingual peers. Speaking both of the country’s official languages – English and French – helped people earn more, even if they weren’t required to speak that second language on the job. In the US, studies have shown that speaking a foreign language can increase your salary by (at least) 1,5-3.8 percent, with German skills having the highest value due to their relative scarcity and Germany’s importance to global trade. In India, this premium was even more notable, with those who spoke English earning, on average, 34 percent more per hour.
Bilingual or multilingual managers are also increasingly valuedand sought after: Recruiters and industry leaders consider them to be better equipped to manage both global business relationships and teams.
Bilingual is better. Period.
There are clear and very tangible benefits to being bilingual. Although there is limited proof that growing up bilingual gives children a significant cognitive edge, lifelong learning and using a second language regularly does indeed seem to make our brains more nimble and resilient. The economic benefits, moreover, can be substantial. Speaking more languages also makes us more open-minded and helps us feel more connected to other cultures and to the world. Who knows – bilingualism might even foster peace and understanding at a global level. If that’s not a good reason to learn another language, I don’t know what is.
Why is being bilingual better? ›
Bilingualism strengthens cognitive abilities - bilingual people tend to be more creative and flexible. They can be more open-minded, and they also find it easier to focus on a variety of tasks simultaneously.Is it worth being bilingual? ›
Speaking a second language improves problem-solving, multitasking and decision-making. Numerous studies have found that bilingualism can improve brain functions like the ability to focus attention and perform mental tasks.Why is bilingual important in today's society? ›
Research has found that babies raised in bilingual households show better self-control,8 a key indicator of school success. Bilingual and biliterate individuals have the opportunity to participate in the global community in more ways, get information from more places, and learn more about people from other cultures.Why is being bilingual important essay? ›
Being bilingual gives an individual an opportunity to get exposed to diverse cultures, ideas, and perspectives by way of learning and communication. The children who are born and brought up in different countries get to learn different languages besides the home language.What does bilingual mean to me? ›
Some say that bilingual means that a person is a native speaker of two languages. Others say bilingual means that someone is fluent in two languages. There are also many who say that bilingual means simply to be able to communicate in two languages.What are the benefits of speaking another language? ›
Learning another language also provides many other benefits including greater academic achievement, greater cognitive development, and more positive attitudes towards other languages and cultures. Simply put, language learning is necessary for students to effectively function in the modern global marketplace.How can bilingualism positively affect a country? ›
Bilingualism can positively impact a country by making it a more diverse place, and by improving residences intelligence (Memory + people skills). Also, a bilingual country, such as Belgium which which has three official languages, can participate more globally because it can communicate with more countries.How bilingualism helps your brain? ›
These findings suggest that the bilingual experience may help improve selective attention by enhancing the auditory brainstem response. “Bilingualism serves as enrichment for the brain and has real consequences when it comes to executive function, specifically attention and working memory,” Kraus says.How does being bilingual help you socially? ›
It gives you access to two cultures and makes you more tolerant and open to others. By being able to communicate in two languages, you are free to learn about diverse cultures, traditions and social behaviors as well as be a part of them.Is Being bilingual a talent? ›
Learning a second language can give your the advantage in almost any situation! Not only does being bilingual increase your intelligence, earning power and attractiveness, but it's something anyone can achieve with a smart and effective approach.
Is bilingual an advantage or disadvantage? ›
Abstract. Bilingualism was once thought to result in cognitive disadvantages, but research in recent decades has demonstrated that experience with two (or more) languages confers a bilingual advantage in executive functions and may delay the incidence of Alzheimer's disease.How does being bilingual help you in the future? ›
There is growing evidence to suggest that bilingualism can delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's disease for example. Other benefits of being bilingual include things such as a faster stroke recovery, lower stress levels, and delay many effects of old to name a few.Who benefits from bilingual education? ›
Those who learn a second or third language from a young age are able to develop communication skills and a higher degree of literacy. Children who grow up in bilingual environments develop a keen awareness of how language works and have a stronger foundation for learning additional languages in the future.What makes someone bilingual? ›
People may become bilingual either by acquiring two languages at the same time in childhood or by learning a second language sometime after acquiring their first language. Many bilingual people grow up speaking two languages.What are the benefits of bilingualism in children? ›
According to scientific studies, bilingual children are better able to focus, plan, prioritize and make decisions. As children get older they tend to score higher on cognitive tests and possess more effective communication skills. Many studies have also found that bilingualism can also help prevent dementia in old age.What is the meaning of bilingual education? ›
Bilingual education is a term that refers to the teaching of academic content in two languages, in a native and second language. Varying amounts of each language are used depending on the outcome goal of the model.What do you know about bilingualism? ›
Definitions of bilingualism range from a minimal proficiency in two languages, to an advanced level of proficiency which allows the speaker to function and appear as a native-like speaker of two languages. A person may describe themselves as bilingual but may mean only the ability to converse and communicate orally.What are the benefits of bilingualism in children? ›
According to scientific studies, bilingual children are better able to focus, plan, prioritize and make decisions. As children get older they tend to score higher on cognitive tests and possess more effective communication skills. Many studies have also found that bilingualism can also help prevent dementia in old age.What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a bilingual? ›
- Pro: It's a conversation starter.
- Con: You will always be better at one than the other.
- Pro: It's great for the CV.
- Con: Sometimes struggling to speak one language in a professional setting.
- Pro: It's easier to learn other languages and it keeps our brains sharp.
These findings suggest that the bilingual experience may help improve selective attention by enhancing the auditory brainstem response. “Bilingualism serves as enrichment for the brain and has real consequences when it comes to executive function, specifically attention and working memory,” Kraus says.
What are the benefits of bilingual education? ›
- Increased cognitive development. ...
- Better academic achievement. ...
- Improved memory. ...
- Resistance to dementia. ...
- Increased economic opportunities. ...
- Cross cultural appreciation. ...
- Improvements in the executive function of the brain.
A 2004 study by psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee found that bilingual youth were more successful at dividing objects by shape and color versus their monolingual peers who struggled when the second characteristic (sorting by shape) was added.Do bilingual kids learn better? ›
Children: benefits of multilingualism and bilingualism
For your child, speaking and using more than one language regularly might be linked to: better academic results. more diverse and interesting career opportunities later in life.
It gives you access to two cultures and makes you more tolerant and open to others. By being able to communicate in two languages, you are free to learn about diverse cultures, traditions and social behaviors as well as be a part of them.What are the characteristics of bilingualism? ›
- May be of two cultures or one culture that uses two languages.
- May or may not speak both languages equally well.
- Can't be expected to translate quickly.
- May mix both languages when talking to each other.
Around the world, speaking different languages boosts your chances in love. In fact, three-quarters (75 percent) of those surveyed say they find it attractive when someone speaks more than one language. The top reasons for picking language over looks were more scattered.