Multilingualism: the gift that keeps on giving

For a lot of people, speaking more than one language is a huge ambition, like scaling a mountain or finally getting that dream job, and yet, to millions of others, being multilingualism is as natural as breathing. So why do those without a second language - the mono-linguists of the world - value this particular skill so highly? Do they see a new language as unattainable and elevate it to fantasy perhaps? Or maybe they feel left out of the club, just unlucky to find themselves busy and trapped in a one-language adulthood. Whatever the reason, it seems there is something to it after all. As we’re about to see, multilingualism is pretty awesome.

Multilinguists are generally defined as people who use two or more languages and data suggests that globally they outnumber their monolingual counterparts, and will do so increasingly in the coming decades as global rates of economic migration are set to continue rising, bringing with them increasingly integrated societies and culturally diverse households, not to mention that levels of formal adult education have never been higher and the international job market has never been more accessible.

On paper at least, monolingualism is beginning to look very old-fashioned. And yet, many academics and experts in linguistics, human development and neurolinguistics would argue that multilingualism is our natural state, and monolingualism is actually a waste of our brain’s hard-wiring and potential.

Researchers have been studying the effects, implications and benefits of speaking more than one language for decades and some of the findings are amazing. Did you know, for example, that typical indicators of cognitive aging tend to be seen later in bilinguals? Or that age-related degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Dementia develop on average five years later in bilinguals? And that’s just the start of it. Having a second language has been shown to be comparable to regular brain training, keeping minds agile and flexible. On top of this learning a second language has been shown to improve people’s language awareness in their mother tongue, helping them communicate more efficiently and improving critical thinking abilities. Other research has shown links between using more than one language and improved memory, longer attention spans and an improved ability to multitask. Not a bad list of pros so far.

As well as the health benefits though, let’s consider some more of the social and personal gains one may experience when a second language becomes part of daily life. First of all we are given a new way to frame our thoughts in a new language, and this is huge discovery for those among us who have grown up monolingual. Other benefits can be less abstract; multilinguals have been shown to have a more refined perception of language, more easily separating meaning from form and being better able to communicate meanings effectively. Learning a new language is also a great way to meet new people and make friends from different backgrounds and cultures than oneself and has also been proven to make learning other languages in the future easier and easier. On top of this there are more and more figures showing the economic benefits of multilingualism as international trade continues to flourish and language skills become increasingly common on job applications.

So in conclusion, multilingualism makes us sharper, more communicative and healthier, as well as giving us a way to re-assess our perspectives and keep our minds young. And it is probably only embracing our brain’s evolution, rather than fighting it. So even if learning a new language seems daunting, surely it’s worth the effort!