Benefits of the Bilingual Brain

The critical period hypothesis for second language acquisition states that the function between learners’ age and their susceptibility to second language input is non-linear. This means that young children are much better at learning a second language than adults are, especially when it comes to technical aspects such as having an authentic accent and being able to pick up on minor sound differences. Below, you can see in the graph that as a person ages, their score on language exams decreases. This has been a common theory for awhile now, but the focus has been on learning the language — but what happens after multiple languages are learned? What benefits does being multilingual have in an individual’s life?

So…why is there such a push now-a-days in our society to learn more than just one language? Well, there are countless reasons people do so, represented by the fact that over half of the people world-wide known more than one language and about two thirds of children globally are raised speaking more than one language. There are many benefits to individuals, which will be discussed now; as well as social/global benefits, which will be discussed later.

The first benefit I came across shared that multilingual individuals have been found to score higher on general measures of executive function, meaning they are able to focus without being distracted and are able to switch back and forth between tasks more easily. This would be things such as saying goodbye to my mom in English, and then going and talking with my sister in Spanish. It means your brain has to quickly change back and forth between two or more activities (i.e. speaking a different language). This would benefit someone in more than just going to a Spanish class and being able to go from speaking English with your friends to Spanish with el profesor. It would improve someone’s job function by being able to prioritize and switch back and forth between different tasks, conversations with different people, and in many other situations. The point is, it doesn’t only apply to speaking different languages.

A second skill that has been shown to be more developed at a younger age in children who speak more than one language is their empathy. When children grow up speaking more than one language, they have to be able to determine what language they should be speaking at a certain time. Again, this doesn’t just apply to language, but other social situations. For example, a child may catch on that in church you are quiet and don’t talk, where as a sporting event it is almost mandatory to yell the whole time. Overall, this skill improves a child’s ability to understand different perspectives and be more understanding of diverse situations and people.

Along with that, a study was done that demonstrated the heightened reading levels of multilingual students compared with their monolingual peers. The students were compared on English-reading and the students who spoke more than one language, on average, score an entire year above those students who only spoke English. Going along with this, students who spoke more than one language preformed better in school overall — not just test scores either, but their involvement in school, as well. There was a study done that looked at 37 school districts in six different states comparing English-only classrooms to dual-language classrooms. The test scores were higher, students seemed to be happier, attendance was better, there were less behavioral problems, and even parent involvement was higher in the dual-language classrooms. This is beneficial all around. With students being happier, parents being more involved, and grades/test scores going up it also makes for a more positive environment for the teachers and staff. This positive school atmosphere in turn helps both students and teachers reach their full potential; its a cycle, really.

Another factor that was affected, relating to schools especially, was the diversity and integration of students who spoke more than one language. A big part of this seems to be that families who are not native English speakers feel as though their language and culture is being heard and valued through these dual-language programs in the schools systems. Again, this multilingual concept brings awareness to more than just words said in different languages, but also the cultural differences that are important to recognize. Moving to a different country is a big deal — obviously — and a family isn’t going to just change everything, they are going to carry their culture and background with them and if they feel that someone else is trying to help preserve this with them, it makes for a more positive society.

One long-term factor that seems to be affected by knowing and using two or more languages throughout someone’s life time is a major decrease in age-related dementia. There was a Canadian study done that found that people who spoke two languages were able to carry on as normal for a longer period of time at a higher level, even though they had greater degrees of damage in their brains. This is astonishing! Someone could actually have more damage in their brain than another person, but because they exercised their brain throughout their life in the form of multiple languages, they were able to outlast their monolingual friends. This factor goes hand-in-hand with the neurological affects of learning a language at a younger age. At a young age, synapses are still forming, and so when a child is learning multiple languages, they are able to make these connections more ingrained in their roots, rather than trying to store that information later in life.

This video above not only shows some of the benefits (some of which were also discussed in the previous section) as well as the effect being multilingual has on a an individual’s brain.

In this MPR broadcast above, the benefits of being bilingual growing up are discussed further. The broadcast starts off by speaking with a family who is bilingual — speaking Hungarian and English. When the couple got married, they decided they would raise their children speaking both languages. This seems to be a great decision, but not everyone seemed to be on the same page. The mother shared a story about how she was in a store with her young daughter (before starting school, so probably three or four years old) and someone asked her when her daughter was going to learn to speak English. Not everyone understands the benefits of knowing more than one language. Her daughter proceeded to attend an English-speaking school and after only a few weeks, her accent was not nearly has heavy as it had been prior to entering kindergarten.

Psychologists were also interviewed in this radio broadcast who shared their findings. One of the biggest point these psychologists wanted to share was that there are absolutely no negatives that have been associated with children who have grown up bilingual. On the contrary, there have been many positives associated with this form of brain activation. The psychologists share that people who speak more than one language have to work harder than those who only speak one language, and they don’t even know it! People who know multiple languages constantly have to decide what language they are speaking and focus on speaking that language and not mixing the other language(s) in. This is something I personally have experienced, speaking both English and Spanish. Sometimes, right before or right after a Spanish class, Spanish presentation, or even just doing a Spanish homework assignment I will continue speaking or thinking in Spanish, even when I should be speaking or thinking in English.

This is a video that discusses another important aspect of language. He begins by discussing what has previously been discussed — the affects being multilingual can have on elongating an individuals life and making the person have a higher quality of living for longer. Then, he goes into another interesting benefit of knowing multiple languages than may not always be something people think of when they think of benefits of knowing multiple languages. He talks about the ability to express oneself in different ways with a wider range of vocabulary. The video shares different examples of words that one language may have and another may not. One example is “pena ajena”; it is Spanish and it describes a time when you feel embarrassed while watching someone else be embarrassed. In Spanish, there is an expression to describe that emotions; in English, there is not. There are many more examples — as a matter of fact, a student created a chart of words in different languages that only exist in that language, also called untranslatable emotions. Although these words may be in different languages, and there is not an all-inclusive language, being able to expand one’s vocabulary in different languages in different ways is a challenge in and of itself.

There have been many personal, individual benefits discussed, but I think it is really important to now discuss the positive social and global affects this multilingualism can have. One of the biggest global affects is the change in the job market. With so many people, about two-thirds, speaking more than one language, the world has become more connected. As cheesy as it may sound, it’s true. This not only improves the global economy, but also the cultural competency of people all around the world. This also means that information is able to be gathered from so many different places. Without multilingual individuals for example, there are many articles/books/other resources that we use on a regular basis that we wouldn’t be able to use because it was in Chinese and no one could read it. All of those studies and data that we look at and base decisions on would not be available because of the language barrier. Plus, think of emergency situations. If a message needed to be shared ASAP from individual to individual whom spoke different languages, they may not have time to wait for a translator, who could be hours away at best, to relay the message. With so many people knowing many languages now-a-days, it is much more likely that a message will be able to be communicated, however choppy and grammatically incorrect as it may be.

Another important thing to consider here is the growth in internet usage in recent years. The internet is prime method of communication between different countries. To the left is a graph of the top languages used on the internet. With English being about double the second most popular language (Chinese), it is clear why many people around the world know English as one of their languages. In fact, it is estimated that about 1.5 billion people worldwide speak English either as a primary or secondary language; with there being just over 7 billion people who live on this earth, 1.5 billion of those people speaking English is a pretty high percentage. Similar to the languages used on the internet, Chinese comes in second place globally. Point being, with so many people being able to speak these popular and common languages, cross-country communication is more likely, and easier than ever.

So how do Americans fit into this? Well sadly, not very well. In this videos, a joke is shared that goes something like this: “What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? AMERICAN.” Again, sad, but true. As discussed in the previous section, English is the most popular language spoke worldwide. I feel like this is a big part of why this joke has come to be. As Americans, we are known for being monolingual and expecting everyone to speak our language, English (which if I may add isn’t even the official language of the United States), whether in the United States or a different country. Although it’s true that English is the most popular and well-known language all across the world, it is not acceptable to expect others to “accommodate” us. Below, in table 1, you can see that over three-fourths of Americans speak only English. On the contrary, in table 2 below, you can see that the majority of European countries speak multiple languages. In the schools, only one out of every five states in the U.S. has more than 25% of students learning more than one language (and if they are including what I took as a “Spanish class” in high school, that means nothing).

Table 1
Table 2

The stigma has form around this idea of Americans speak English, only English, and everyone around them should do the same. It is unfortunate that this negative connotation has been associated with Americans, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed.

What can we do? Well, with the help and the understanding of the critical period hypothesis for second language acquisition, and some simple changes across the country, this stigma can be erased. One change that can and should be made in the United States is the addition of more bilingual schools. My sister was fortunate enough to complete a Spanish and English bilingual program beginning in preschool and still continuing today through her high school education. Through that education, she has become fluent in both English and Spanish. She is very intelligent and has scored high on standardized tests, is able to apply the information she learns in various situations, and has learned more about cultures outside of the American culture. With this one simple change in the United States, more people could be educated at a more advanced rate, and ultimately have higher intellectual scores overall. Ultimately, however, adults need to be educated about this critical period, so that they can make the right decision for the children in the United States. Learning a second language is challenging, but if that right techniques are used at the proper age, it is possible for anyone to break the “Monolingual Americans” stigma.