There are some obvious benefits to bilingualism. You can make more friends, study at overseas schools, and get your foot in the door for a wider range of jobs all around the world.
However, there are also several benefits you might not expect. Knowing a second language changes the way you think and interact with the world.
(Note: In linguistic terms, being bilingual usually means being at a native or near-native level in two languages. It sometimes also means being highly proficient but not necessarily at a native-level in two languages. For the purpose of this article, we’re using the latter, more inclusive definition.)
Here are seven unexpected benefits of bilingualism.
1. Your mental focus improves.
Research has shown that bilingual children perform better on problem-solving tests, completing tasks quicker and more adeptly.
Your brain has something called the executive control system. It allows your brain to key in on relevant information, which in turn allows you to juggle multiple topics better. In other words, a well-functioning executive control system means your mind is both attentive and nimble.
The research suggests that being bilingual challenges your brain in a way that improves your executive control system.
2. You make more rational decisions.
A team of scientists at the University of Chicago studied how thinking in a foreign language affects decision-making.
Humans tend to make bad decisions because our brains are influenced by irrational biases. That’s why someone might gamble away his rent money in the hopes of hitting the big score.
The University of Chicago scientists found that thinking in a foreign-language dramatically reduces our decision-making bias and helps us make more rational decisions.
I think maybe this effect would lessen as people reach near-native fluency in the second language, as that second language would be more infused with emotion and quicker to process. I don’t think we can ignore the research entirely, though, given bilingualism’s proven effect on executive control.
3. You stave off Alzheimer’s.
Research on patients with Alzheimer’s reports that bilingual patients reported the onset of symptoms 5 years later than monolingual patients. The conclusion that scientists drew from this is that being bilingual helps delay, but not outright prevent, Alzheimer’s.
In layman’s terms, knowing two languages helps keep your mind sharp and delays dementia.
4. You see the world a different way.
I’m quick to say that language is not static like computer code, but language is still code – it’s just dynamic. In the realm of language, words stand in for physical-world objects and for abstract ideas.
But each language has its own code. Take color, for example. English speakers use the word “blue” to describe a wide range of colors along the color spectrum, while Japanese speakers use their word for “blue” to describe a narrow range. Japanese speakers also have words for light blue and dark blue.
Colors are measurable. How do languages handle more abstract concepts like “love,” “liberty,” and “value”?
Being bilingual means being able to understand the world according to the terms of two different sets of codes.
5. You can listen better.
Being bilingual changes how your brain processes sound. The science is complicated and a little crazy, but basically your auditory system is automatically better at processing sound.
I noticed this myself after I learned Arabic. All my life, I had had trouble paying attention in lectures. But after learning Arabic, when I went to college, I was able to stay tuned in, no matter how boring the subject matter.
6. Your SAT performance improves.
According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, students who took four or more years of a foreign language:
- Scored higher on the verbal section of the SAT
- Scored as well on the math section of the SAT as students who had studed four or more years of mathematics
Okay, maybe you’re not planning to take an SAT anytime soon. But I still find it noteworthy that learning a second language improves your overall academic aptitude.
7. You have more options for expressing emotions.
Emotions are tied up in language. A mother who calls her baby “Pumpkin” will always have an emotional attachment with the word itself. The baby might grow, but the word “Pumpkin” will always be pumpkin.
Languages also affect the way we express emotions. Different languages are easier for expressing different emotions. I won’t name any languages here to avoid stereotyping, but just think of a language from a culture that values passion versus one from a culture that values reserve. The language from the passionate culture might make it easier for you to express primal emotions such as rage, intense love, or fear.
As Francois Grosjeans writes, “Expressing emotions in more than one language follows no set rules; some bilinguals prefer to use one language, some the other, and some both.”
So you’re sold. You want to be bilingual. What now?
Get going! Start learning. For many languages, you can be fluent in less than a year.
Then you can enjoy all these benefits for the rest of your life. Oh, and you’ll get to meet cool new people too.