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Beyond Words: The Benefits of Being Bilingual

Why you should learn another language.

Source: Pexels

[Article updated on 22 November 2020.]

It can come as a surprise to many people in the U.K. and U.S. that speaking more than one language is the norm rather than the exception. In prehistoric times, most people belonged to small linguistic communities, and had to speak several languages to trade with, and marry into, neighbouring communities.

Still today, remaining populations of hunter-gatherers are almost all multilingual. Papua New Guinea, a country smaller than Spain, counts some 850 languages, or about one language per 10,000 inhabitants. In countries such as India, Malaysia, and South Africa, most people are bilingual or better. Even in the world at large, polyglots outnumber monoglots. And with the advent of the Internet, contact with foreign languages has become increasingly frequent, even for the most linguistically isolated of monoglots.

In sixteenth century England, Queen Elizabeth I could speak at least nine languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, and Irish. A few days after her death in 1603, the Venetian ambassador Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli wrote back to his Doge and Senate:

She possessed nine languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue; five of these were the languages of peoples governed by her, English, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, for that part of her possessions where they are still savage, and Irish. All of them are so different, that it is impossible for those who speak the one to understand any of the others. Besides this, she spoke perfectly Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian extremely well.

No wonder she didn't want to get married.

To speak a language competently implies knowledge of the culture associated with the language. Multilingualism is closely linked to multiculturalism, and, historically, both came under attack with the rise of the nation state. In the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the British Prime Minister Theresa May stated: ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’—as though that were somehow deviant or problematic. Human beings are far older than any nation state.

Still today, some people believe that teaching a child more than one language can impair the child’s linguistic and cognitive development. But what’s the evidence? According to several studies, people who learn another language do significantly better on standardized tests. Language management calls upon executive functions such as attention control, cognitive inhibition, and working memory, and it appears that bi- and multi-lingual people are better at observing, multi-tasking, and problem solving. They also have a larger working memory, including for tasks that do not involve language.

Being multilingual can also improve judgement. According to one recent study, people who think through a moral dilemma in a foreign language come to much more rational, or utilitarian, conclusions—perhaps because certain words lose some of their emotional weight, or because the problem is seen from a different cultural perspective or processed through different neural channels. So, if you have a second language, you can use it, like a good friend, to check yourself.

The cognitive benefits of bilingualism, disputed though they are, also extend to health. A study of hospital records in Toronto, Canada, found that bilingual people were diagnosed with dementia on average three to four years later than their monolingual counterparts from a similar educational and occupational background. Another study in Northern Italy looking at people at the same stage of Alzheimer’s disease found that the bilingual people were on average five years older, and had stronger connections between the brain areas involved in executive function. Over in India, a study of 600 stroke survivors found that the bilingual ones had a much better outcome. Specifically, 40.5% of the bilingual patients had normal cognition compared to just 19.6% of the monolingual ones.

And then there are the undisputed economic benefits. According to an American study, high-level bilingualism is associated with additional earnings of about $3,000 a year, even after controlling for factors such as educational attainment and parental socio-economic status. According to The Economist, for an American graduate, a second language could be worth—on a conservative estimate—up to $128,000 over 40 years. Of course, the overall economic impact of multilingualism is much greater than the sum of the higher earnings of multilingual speakers. A University of Geneva report estimates that Switzerland’s multilingual heritage contributes about $50 billion a year to the Swiss economy, or as much as 10% of GDP. In contrast, research for the UK government cautions that a lack of language skills could be costing the British economy around $48 billion a year, or 3.5% of GDP, in lost output.

Being bilingual may have important cognitive and economic benefits, but it is usually the personal, social, and cultural benefits that multilingual people are most keen to emphasize. As I argue in my new book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, many bilingual people feel that the way they are, and the way they see the world—and even the way they laugh and love—changes according to the language that they are speaking. In the 1960s, Susan Ervin-Tripp asked Japanese-English bilingual women to finish sentences in each language, and found that the women came up with very different endings depending on whether they were speaking English or Japanese. For example, they completed ‘Real friends should…’ with ‘…help each other’ in Japanese, but ‘…be frank’ in English. ‘Who’s your favourite writer?’ ‘What do you want to eat for dinner?’ ‘Shall we break all the rules?’ Ask a question in one language, and you get one answer; ask the same question in another language, and you might get a different one. ‘To have another language’ said Charlemagne ‘is to have another soul’.

Translation dictionaries seem to assume that languages are made up of corresponding words, but even when that is more or less the case, the equivalencies have different connotations. Compared to ‘I like you’ in English, je t’aime in French is a far more serious proposition. George Carlin once joked that ‘meow’ means ‘woof’ in cat—but, of course, it doesn’t. Owing to a certain je ne sais quoi, some things are more readily expressed in one language than in another. By code switching, multilingual speakers can increase their range of expression and perhaps even their range of thought. In the words of Wittgenstein: ‘A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.’

Certain languages are better suited to certain purposes, for example, English is great for science and technology, French is better for cooking and complaining, and Latin is best for praying and formal rites of passage. Multilingual people are free to pick and choose, maybe along the lines of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor: ‘I speak in Latin to God, Italian to Women, French to Men, and German to my Horse.’ Charles V did not get on with the German lords and preferred to live in Spain, sitting on the newly created Spanish throne by right of his incarcerated mother, Joanna the Mad [Juana la Loca]—things I know because I speak Spanish. And after a few glasses of fino, I’m almost fluent.

The more languages we learn, the easier it becomes to learn languages. But learning a language also strengthens our first language. For instance, one study found that Spanish immersion significantly improved children’s native English vocabulary. More broadly, learning a language casts light upon our first language and language in general, increasing our appreciation of language and ability to communicate. ‘You speak English beautifully,’ wrote Robert Aickman in The Wine-Dark Sea (1966), ‘which means you can’t be English.’

Just before writing this article, I asked my amazing Facebook and Twitter people the following question: 'If you are bi- or multi-lingual, what do you most value about that fact?'

And here are some of their responses:

  • The freedom to access different cultures plus the possibility to read many authors in original version!
  • Being fluent in a couple of other languages has given me insight into other ways of seeing the world. That helps empathy, and openness.
  • I appreciate the cognitive advantages being multilingual has offered. Also the connections with culture, history, and the knowledge acquired.
  • Language is knowledge. Always useful to be a little less ignorant.
  • It feels as if I can switch into two different modes and think from different perspectives.
  • Being more tolerant—new language = new culture, new and different perspectives/access to more information.
  • That I can talk wine with twice as many ppl.
  • It gives me patience and understanding for those who want to articulate, but have difficulty conveying what they really mean.
  • The fact that I can fully understand and communicate in another language (Afrikaans) makes me feel good.
  • It gave me an understanding that ‘thoughts’ don’t come into my head in a language at all. Thoughts come as ‘ideas’. Only when I have to verbalize my ideas, I have to use a language.
  • I’m bilingual in India. There’s nothing special about it here. Know a ton of people who are trilingual. In India, multilingualism starts becoming impressive if the language count’s above like five or something.
  • Obviously, being able to speak about people in elevators without them knowing what’s said. ;)
  • Having a variety of options when cussing.

Every language on this earth has its own rules and conventions, its own sounds and rhythms, its own beauty and poetry, its own history and philosophy. Every language on this earth is another way of being human, another way of being alive.

See my related post How the Language You Speak Influences the Way You Think


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Grin F et al (2009): Langues etrangères dans l’activité professionnelle, project no. 405640-108630. Geneva: University of Geneva.

Language Skills Deficit Costs the UK £48bn a Year. Lucy Pawle, The Guardian, 10 December 2013.

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