Are you bi- (or even multi-) lingual? Good for you! Whether you grew up speaking more than one language or put the effort into learning a tongue other then your native one, you will benefit from your skill in a multitude of ways. Enhanced communicational abilities are only the first – and most obvious – advantage that comes with knowing and learning languages. But there are a host of other benefits you may never have considered before…
But let us begin with the above mentioned communication skills. At first glance that may not seem like a very intriguing benefit which requires further elaboration. Further investigation uncovers quite a few layers. The first, of course, would be that you will be able to communicate with anyone who speaks the learned language of your choice in their native tongue. Depending on where you are or want to travel, this will be important because your own native tongue might not get you far. But let’s move on to the deeper layers of your enhanced communication skills. Learning a language requires you to pay attention, especially on an auditory level. The only (or at least the best and easiest) way to acquire a good – or at least fairly acceptable – foreign accent is by closely listening to and then trying to imitate the sounds and words of a language. Add listening to your list of new and improved skills. The second skill you will find improved is your ability to connect and speak with people. Actively communicating in a language you have learned or are still learning requires courage, especially in the beginning and in the long run will change the way you approach and connect with others.
Let’s further investigate the changes or enhancement to your attitude or personality language learning can bring. Naturally, this is not something that will just happen for everyone; your previous attitude towards life, learning and change probably determines to what degree any change will occur. But imagine yourself in a foreign country where no one understands your native tongue, thus forcing you to put yourself out there and test out your new language. It will certainly heighten your self-esteem if you emerge from that experience victorious and you will have formed a link to the people and their culture. And speaking of that: The fact that you took the step to travel to and get to know the country on such a level proves that you are open to exposing yourself to new things, that you may be more tolerant than others of foreign cultures/people/things.
There are some obvious employment advantages that come from being bi-/multilingual. Obviously, you will know a second language. Depending on your company’s clients and customers this might be the primary reason for hiring you. But employers may also know of other crucial skills that develop when you communicate in two languages. Bilinguals can think more flexibly than monolinguals and are therefore often much better at solving problems. For a long time scientists considered the increased brain activity that comes with bilingualism to be an interference with other thought processes. New studies show that in fact, quite the opposite is true. Besides its obvious practical benefits, bilingualism holds a great cognitive advantage that heightens intelligence and even has health benefits.
How is this possible? When we know two languages, they are located in separate language systems in our brain. And even when we speak only one language, both systems are active. It was always assumed that this form of interference could hinder intellectual and academic developments, especially in children that grew up bilingual. As it turns out, this constant struggle to separate the two languages is a great mental workout. Our brain’s command system, which we use when planning things and solving problems will be largely improved as a result. This in turn makes it easier to stay focused on a task and ignore all those pesky distractions. Additionally, bilinguals can make the switch from one task to another more easily – and when they do, they better manage to hold any relevant information in mind.
When considering the skill of bilingualism itself, it seems only obvious that you should excel at this. Constantly juggling two languages requires the exact same skills: When you’re on the phone to a customer in China, then check in with your colleague about something, you’ll have to make an abrupt switch. Most likely this will happen instinctively as you become attuned to which environment requires which language. And as if all of these skills you get from bilingualism weren’t enough already, you should know that your mental health will benefit as well: Researchers have found that, the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset of dementia (and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease).
To sum up: Speaking two languages makes you a better person, significantly improves and adds to your professional skills and keeps you mentally fit into old age. You really can’t ask for more. So what are you waiting for? Go study!
Bhattacharjee, Yudhijit. “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter”. The New York Times Sunday Review March 17, 2012. Retrieved April 13, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html?_r=2&src=ISMR_AP_LO_MST_FB