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The many benefits of bilingualism (and multilingualism)

There is a Czech proverb I love which means: ‘You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you only know one language, you live only once’. 

Image by Zsuzsanna Ilijin

In much of the world, bilingualism and even multilingualism is the norm. The 2012 Eurobarometer report revealed that 98% of Europeans considered bilingualism to be important, and on average, 54% of Europeans are able to hold a conversation in a language other than their mother tongue. But in primarily English speaking countries fewer parents are raising their children to be bilingual. The fact that English is so widely spoken around the world is one of the main reasons for this, giving those of us with English as our mother tongue less of an incentive to learn another language to fluency. But bilingualism and multilingualism have numerous cognitive, cultural, and professional benefits for you and your children.

The benefits of bilingualism include:

  • Creates a connection to your children’s cultural heritage, particularly important when parents come from two different cultures. This also means children can communicate with grandparents and other relatives who might not speak one of their languages;
  • Ability to build friendships with a wider range of people, read the literature of that language in its original form, watch films in the language, and be exposed to a greater number of ideas and perspectives;
  • Strengthening of cross cultural communication skills;
  • Increased empathy: research by Princeton psychologists Paula Rubio-Fernández and Sam Glucksberg have shown that bilingual children are better able to put themselves in the shoes of others and understand a different point of view;
  • Increased cognitive abilities, for example more effective multitasking: bilingualism decreases confusion when switching between tasks;
  • There is increasing evidence that bilingualism can help to cope longer with Alzheimer’s: In a study of 200 Alzheimer’s patients, cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystock revealed that bilingualism resulted in a 5 year delay of the onset of Alzheimer’s compared with monolingual patients. So while bilingual people still develop Alzheimer’s, they are able to better cope with the disease for longer, and function at a higher level than those who are monolingual.
  • Bialystock also discovered that bilingual children also process language differently: for example she asked a number of monolingual and bilingual children whether the sentence “apples grow on noses” was grammatically correct. While a number of monolingual children became caught up in the silliness of the sentence, bilingual children were often able to establish that while the sentence did not necessarily make sense, it was in fact grammatically correct. This is because bilingualism can effect the executive control system, or rather bilingual children have an increased capacity to tune out noise while focusing on what is relevant;
  • Career advantages: more and more jobs require a minimum of two languages. Want to work for international organisations, or the EU? Some of these jobs require three or more languages, or at least put you at a distinct advantage compared to monolingual candidates. Professors Louis Christofides and Robert Swidinsky discovered that in Quebec, Canada, men who speak English and French earn on average 7% more and women 8% more than this who speak only French.

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Bialystock does note that for the positive effects of bilingualism to be in effect, one must use both languages constantly, and not simply dusting off German or French learnt at school once every 3 or 4 years or so while on holiday. Bilingualism is exercise for the brain, and brain needs constant training to retain these fitness benefits.

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Are you bilingual? Are you raising your children to be bilingual? Let me know or send me an email, I’d love to hear about your experiences.


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2 Responses to “The many benefits of bilingualism (and multilingualism)”

  1. Isabel Horna-Gray says:

    HI,

    I am really glad to hear that raising my child bilingual is more than just being able to speak to their family based in Peru. Yes, I am peruvian and my husband was born and raised in NJ. He also speaks Spanish and we both speak only Spanish in the house we have a 3 year old boy and an 8th month old girl.

    My son now can understand when he is speaking english or spanish and it is funny when he hears some TV show that speaks both like Dora or Diego he laughs a bit. He also finds funny my sister’s english (hers sounds more British because we went to diferent schools), not nice I know but to me seems important that he can pick up the differences). I only find it challenging because seems to make him more hesitant to express what he did in the day… that he has to think carefully… and gets frustrated because he is so eager to tell me but, is not always easy to find the words in Spanish after have lived all of that in English at day care.

    My girl can not speak yet… but seems very interested in making all the diferent sounds at all the volumes possible… we will see how she manages I have been told it is more dificult to keep the language when more siblings arrive, because they begin speaking to each other in English. but i will try and be persistent

    Thank you!

  2. Michelle says:

    Thanks so much for your comment Isabel – it is fascinating to hear the different experiences people have had raising bilingual children.

    I’d really love to hear more about your approach and your experiences – if you’re interested, send me an email at michelle [at] borderlessadventures [dot] com

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