According to the Associated Press, in 2001, up to 66 percent of the world’s children were raised bilingual. As bilingualism has become more common, it grew into a popular academic research topic. Numerous studies concurred that speaking multiple languages brings many benefits in brain development, social skills, and economic advantages.
The Cognitive Advantages of Bilingualism
To refer, explain, or describe any concept or object, bilingual people know more than one word. It leads them to view the world with greater complexity and more creativity.
Moreover, depending on the language they are using, they need to constantly select which word to use and which one to ignore. This recurring mental gymnastics produces more gray matter in the region of the brain called the inferior parietal cortex that is home to learning and memory skills. More gray matter means better focus and increased memory. Concretely, students can better tune out background noise, such as classroom chatting, other distractions. As such, they are more on task and perform better in educational settings. This capacity to suppress a word or thought in one language teaches the bilingual brain to deal with conflicting demands. This is why bilingual people are better at prioritizing and switching tasks.
Besides, the mental juggling in your brain appears to have long-term advantages by delaying the effects of Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases by 4-5 years.
Associated with those numerous cognitive advantages are social and cultural benefits developed by bilingual people.
The Social Benefits of Bilingualism
Knowing a second language allows you to communicate with others and become friends with people from different backgrounds and cultures. You not only gain a linguistic skill, but also discover the history and culture of different countries and regions of the world. You become more knowledgeable, open-minded, and culturally aware. You have more incentives and opportunities to travel. You learn to navigate different cultures and social cues. You become more comfortable being out of your comfort zone, you are better able to adapt. At the same time, exposure to a different culture makes you more aware of your own. It helps grow your self-esteem and boost your confidence.
When learning another language, you need to become very much attuned to the tone of voice, its pitch. You have to be a good listener. Additionally, the cognitive ability to tune out one language helps bilingual individuals to temporarily suppress their feelings. The combination of those two skills allows them to be more empathetic by focusing on their interlocutors.
So, bilingualism not only improves cognitive abilities, but it also helps individuals develop soft skills that are highly valued by businesses. It translates into economic advantages.
The Economic Benefits of Bilingualism
According to a 2018 study by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, “Nine out of Ten U.S. employers report a reliance on U.S.-based employees with language skills other than English.” “A majority of employers report that their need for foreign languages has increased over the past five years and project that it will continue to grow.”
These needs emphasize the marketability of bilingual employees. Moreover, a Swiss survey shows that bilingual employees are less likely to be let go in economic downturns, despite having a higher remuneration. Indeed, U.S. studies cited in the Economic Advantages of Bilingualism Literature Review found that individuals who studied foreign languages at the university level gained higher wages, “even when controlling for factors such as education level, family background, and cognitive ability.” Recruiters recognize the linguistic, cognitive, and social benefits of bilingualism and are ready to reward those skills financially.
In addition to the apparent linguistic edge of speaking several languages, bilingualism studies identified more subtle advantages, such as increased interpersonal skills, more creative thinking, better focus and memory, as well as other soft-skills. As Gigi Luk, an associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, puts it “bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime,” a lifetime of benefits.