This post was written by Aimee Bushong.
Everyone that comes to BridgeEnglish Denver is focused on one thing, learning how to speak or improve their English. Some students come to BridgeEnglish Denver with some acquisition of the language already under their belts while others come as total beginners. Either way, their goals are the same: to become bilingual by adding English to their already fluent native tongue.
Most of the benefits of being bilingual are quite obvious – more job and education opportunities, cultural and communication advantages, and more rewarding travel opportunities. However, there are many other “hidden” advantages of being bilingual that most people don’t ever even think about. Bilinguals, whether they know it or not, have several cognitive advantages over monolinguals and studies have shown that you don’t even need to be fluent in a language to reap these benefits.
You do, however, have to maintain study of the language. The brain is a muscle and, if you do not constantly use it, you will lose the things that you study, including other languages. If you are a body builder and you suddenly quit lifting weights, your muscles will atrophy and you will lose all of the muscle that you have built up. It’s the same with learning a new language. You must keep speaking it and practicing it or it to will too atrophy. And if you do keep practicing, these other benefits will start working to your advantage.
Advantages of being bilingual:
One of the many “side” benefits of being bilingual is being able to better pay attention and ignore distractions. Studies have shown that knowing two or more languages can change brain function and may be advantageous when it comes to certain nonverbal cognitive tasks. Bilinguals tend to perform better than monolinguals on exercises that require blocking out distractions and switching between two or more different tasks. When a bilingual person speaks two languages regularly, the brain must be able to use the language that is being spoken at that given moment and push the other language aside so as to not mix the two. Thus, the brain trains itself to be able to focus on the continued dominance of the intended language. This ability to compartmentalize can carry over into other skills in which focus and attention is needed, for example multitasking.
Better at multitasking
Bilinguals tend indeed to be better than monolinguals at multitasking. Juggling their languages helps bilinguals ignore irrelevant information and prioritize tasks better than those who only can only speak one tongue. When a bilingual person speaks one language, the other language is still potentially active. That means that speakers of two or more languages are constantly inhibiting one language in favor of another, which perhaps enhances their overall attention skills. The bilingual person can also have some specific advantages in thinking abilities. They have two or more words for each idea and object and hence a bilingual person can develop creative thinking and an ability to think more flexibly. The bilinguals are also aware about which language should be spoken with which person in a particular situation. Therefore, they can be more sensitive to the needs of the listener than monolingual people.
Less chance of Alzheimer’s
Being bilingual also has a positive effect on intellectual growth. It enhances and enriches a person’s mental development. The latest research has proved that bilinguals are better at IQ tests as compared to monolinguals. Being bilingual can also delay dementia in older age and even ward off Alzheimer’s. How? Studies have shown that language learning is an example of “cognitive reserve.” It’s something that keeps the mind active in the same way as puzzles and games do, and works toward compensating for the build-up of dementia-causing pathology in the brain. These internal exercises may enhance “mental flexibility,” similar to the way people who do yoga regularly can ward off osteoporosis. They keep their bodies flexible so they won’t get bent out of shape, so to speak. Speaking two languages keeps an adult brain healthy and alert, so keep studying!
Easier to learn other languages
You may think that adding a third or fourth language may confuse the brain and inhibit the ability to retain the languages but it has actually been shown that adding more languages to your repertoire makes it easier to learn a new language. This is because languages reinforce one another, and provide tools to strengthen phonologic, morphologic and syntactic skills. Such skills provide the necessary basis for learning to read. Applying language skills from one language to another is a critical cognitive function that makes it easier for an individual to go through the learning process successfully. Each language learned serves as a scaffold to learn another language by building on grammatical structures and concepts behind words.
THEORY IN ACTION
I chatted with two bilingual students at Bridge about how knowing two different languages has affected them in the above capacities. Mi Seng González Wong, whose first language is Spanish, told me that when she has a conversation in English, she indeed listens more attentively because it’s not her first language and her brain won’t allow her to be distracted. She also told me that sometimes she reverts back to her native Spanish without realizing it; for example, when she answers her phone here in Colorado and says “hola” instead of “hello.” “It’s so automatic that it just instinctively comes out of my mouth,” she says. “But then I realize where I am and my brain does a switch back to English. It’s weird but I like the fact that I put my brain to work in situations like that.” She also admits that her concentration has improved since she has become fluent in English. “I never realized it but I really do think I can concentrate better on whatever I am doing, not just studying English, but anything.”
Axelle Hazard, a student whose first language is French, also agrees that her concentration is sharper from being bilingual. “I think speaking two languages has helped me in university and in other aspects of my life because I am (better) able to stay focused on the project at hand, especially in taking tests. I also never realized it but I think I am a better listener because I speak more than one language. I listen more intently in English, obviously, because it is my second language but that carries over to French also.” Both students were pleasantly surprised when I told them of these hidden benefits of speaking more than one language and they both unknowingly have acquired these clandestine skills throughout their journey to become bilingual.
In conclusion, being bilingual serves far more than just being able to communicate in a different language. It provides a variety of different cognitive and intellectual skills that people with one language would otherwise not have. So, as you continue your journey towards becoming bilingual, take pride in the fact that you are gaining a quiver of other skills that you will be able to apply in all aspects of your life.
What about you? Have you noticed any of these benefits mentioned above? Comment below and let us know!