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Seven things you didn’t know about bilingualism

Seven things you didn’t know about bilingualism

The ability to function in two or more languages feels almost like a superpower – and science agrees. The effects of bilingualism have been increasingly studied in the last few years and determined as overwhelmingly positive. (Yes, there was a time when it was thought that learning an additional language as a child would only serve to confuse the brain. Thankfully, that’s all in the past.) Here are seven reasons why bilingualism rocks.

1. Bilingual children have better social skills

Bilingual children are considered more socially-intelligent than their monolingual peers. This study demonstrated that bilingual kids better interpreted other people’s intentions: effectively, that they were skilled at putting themselves in the shoes of others and reading a situation from their perspective. The characteristics this develops – greater interpersonal, understanding, and listening skills – are of course more essential than ever in today’s world.

2. Dementia’s demon

When we begin to learn an additional language, the mental effort of switching between them can feel physically tiring. Thankfully, not only does this exhaustion subside as our skills increase, but the cognitive effort required to learn a language has tangible benefits for our brains and health. Degenerative diseases like dementia can be kept at arm’s length through the regular exercise of the brain, and bilingualism has been linked to a delay in the onset of dementia and faster recovery after stroke.

3. Bilingualism = intelligence? Not so simple.

While it was previously claimed that bilinguals were more intelligent, researchers now say that it’s a little more complex than that. What’s undeniable is that learning languages is an expert brain trainer. The cognitive benefits are numerous: Increased flexibility and adaptability; better ability to organize conflicting information; increased concentration; superior problem-solving abilities and mental agility. These are characteristics that play a part in the broader concept of multiple intelligences and show that bilingualism isn’t limited to the “traditionally” intelligent.

4. Bilingualism makes money

Languages increase individuals’ and nations’ bottom lines. In Switzerland, where most residents speak at least two languages fluently, one study estimated that multilingualism accounted for a whopping 10 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). On the other hand, monolingualism when combined with a reluctance to invest in language learning, can lose money. Switzerland’s situation is starkly contrasted with Britain’s estimated loss of 3.5% of GDP, around £48bn, to its vice grip on English.

Zooming in, while it’s clear that individuals do benefit, other factors such as education, industry, and geographical region play a role, though it is more difficult to pinpoint exactly by how much. Studies in North America have reported a salary increase of 3-7% (in Canada) and around 1.5 – 3.8% (in the US, with German-speakers enjoying an estimated US$128,000 extra over a career). English-speaking employees in India enjoy an average wage increase of 34% per hour.

5. Multicultural you

Putting the wallet away now, let’s turn to our communities. It’s clear that being bilingual means being able to converse with people from other cultures (itself no small benefit). But let’s raise the bar a little higher: bilingualism increases empathy. Studies measuring open-mindedness and cultural sensitivity have reported that bilinguals score higher than monolinguals. Why? Because the experience of immersion in another language allows them to view an issue from another culture’s perspective.

6. Bilinguals (literally) experience the world differently

When your world is interpreted in a single language it’s almost impossible to imagine how another tongue could change it. But so it is. Consider the Finns’ 40 words for snow and the much-shared lists of untranslatable words that swim through our newsletters and social media feeds. By use of their common language, some cultures experience life more existentially, have a greater affinity with winter, or have, let’s say, “extremely loud” conversations with their families over lunch (hello Italy!). When you’re invited into that culture through language, you’ll soon find yourself wondering how you got by without a particular word or concept. The answer? You didn’t need it before. But here, in your second (or third, fourth, fifth…) culture, it’s so essential it goes unsaid.

7. Far more common than you might think

If you come from a staunchly monolingual – and likely English-dominant culture – you might find this far-fetched. But consider this: an estimated half of our world is bilingual, and this tendency seems to be on the rise. Currently, there are more Spanish speakers in the US than in Spain, making this the second-largest community of Spanish speakers after Mexico. To give the example of English, Scandinavian countries have developed their population’s famously high level of English through an early integration of language education, coupled with immersive techniques, in the school curriculum. Moving to Asia, there are currently more people studying English in China than in any other country and Malaysia and Vietnam are also embracing English language education; sending their children abroad or choosing it over and above a neighboring language.

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