Up until a few decades ago, being bilingual was somewhat frowned upon. Convinced that there was only space in our brains for one language, academics and scientists were sure that learning a second language – or bringing up a child in a bilingual environment – was simply a recipe for confusion, stress, and academic failure.
But studies in recent years have turned this way of thinking upside down. Again and again, research has demonstrated that not only are our brains designed to be bilingual, but that speaking more than one language can actually make us smarter! There are plenty of other benefits to raising a bilingual child, too. Read on!
The Bilingual Brain
The effects of bilingualism on our brains take place almost from birth. Amazing experiments and tests suggest that even very young infants are able to tell different languages apart, and infants as young as eight months are able to tell the difference between the facial expressions of one language from another. Pretty neat, right? Bilingual babies seem to have enhanced attentiveness right from the start – a benefit which continues and grows as they get older.
Plenty of research now shows that those who speak a second language benefit from improvements in the brain’s executive function. As well as that extra attentiveness, bilingual speakers are likely to be more focused on tasks, more able to ignore distractions, and able to hold a greater quantity of information in their mind at a time.
These cognitive benefits of bilingualism can give children a significant academic advantage. Research has shown that, while children who are educated in their second language may initially lag behind their peers at around three to five years old, they soon catch up and will likely outperform their monolingual peers by age seven.
A Competitive Edge
In our increasingly globalised world, speaking two or more languages rather than just one gives these speakers a real competitive edge. More and more companies, especially those with international offices and those in fast-growing fields such as tourism, journalism, and translation, are considering bilingualism a highly desirable trait in job candidates. Speaking a second language can help bump your CV to the top of the pile and give you a distinct edge over monolingual speakers.
Charlemagne once said that “to have another language is to possess a second soul.” It’s certainly true that some bilingual speakers describe their experience in speaking two languages as like having two different personalities. And being able to speak another language often gives bilingual speakers increased empathy, too.
It’s not only that different languages’ vocabularies and figures of speech can reveal different ways of looking at the world, but if you’re used to regularly changing your language to accommodate other speakers and contexts (technically called ‘code-switching’), then you’re probably also going to be used to taking into account other people’s situations and points of view. This increased empathy is of obvious benefit in both personal and professional spheres.
As well as that, bilingual children often demonstrate a greater capacity to manage change and cope with transitions. In fact, studies have shown that bilingual children as young as seven months tend to adjust better to changes in the environment than monolingual speakers.
With the advent of Google Translate and other nifty translation apps, being bilingual isn’t strictly necessary when you travel other countries. But without a doubt, being able to speak the local language of the place you’re visiting opens doors – to new places, to new friends, to new cultures – in a way that no app can do. Being able to properly communicate with locals can make travelling so much more enriching and enjoyable.
This article was written by Helen Prior, the founder of SchoolSelect Malaysia, Malaysia’s first specialised, independent international school consultancy for families. She is passionate about helping families navigate the complex school selection process and make informed schooling decisions. Get in touch with Helen at schoolselectmalaysia.com and on Facebook and Instagram: SchoolSelectMY.