It is estimated that over two-thirds of the world’s population speaks more than one language. Although the numbers are trending upward, the United States remains the exception, where only about 20% of the total population speaks a language other than English at home. American culture, for the most part, still demands conformity. Because we pride ourselves on being a melting pot, we discourage those who come here from elsewhere in the world from outwardly expressing their native culture. Instead of embracing diversity, we deny it.
Bilingualism can help us in better connecting to the rest of the world, literally and figuratively. Diversity brings new ideas; conformity does not.
In addition, learning another language offers several neurological and psychosocial benefits that could have positive implications for our group consciousness.
Not that long ago, psychologists considered bilingualism a disadvantage. They believed children burdened with thinking in more than one language risked developmental delays. Years of research on the topic late in the 20th century found that, in fact, the opposite is true (Freemark & Smith, 2014). In general, research indicates that bilingualism actually increases brain function.
Among the neurological benefits of bilingualism is a strengthened executive function. The executive function is a series of neural synapses in the prefrontal cortex of the brain associated with planning, organization, attention to detail, memory, impulse control and self-monitoring (Hanson 2009).
In an article published in The Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2011, psychologist Ellen Bialystok discussed the findings from a study she conducted on 104 bilingual and monolingual 8 year-old children. The children were asked to perform tasks that required coordination of the executive control functions of the prefrontal cortex. Bialystok found that the bilingual children outperformed the monolingual children in each of the core components. Because bilinguals have both languages “running” inside their brains at all times—even when actively using only one language—Bialystok theorized that bilinguals constantly use their executive function. Like any muscle, the brain strengthens with increased use. Since planning, organizing, self-monitoring and impulse control are important parts of education, children receiving a bilingual education have a distinct advantage over their peers in these key areas.
Another neurological benefit of bilingualism is the increased capacity to hold several perspectives at one time. Although the use of language resides in the brain’s left hemisphere, the ability to hold the worldviews of two or more cultures and experience life from those perspectives is a right-brained function (Hanson 2009). Both hemispheres of the brain get more use, forming new neural patterns that facilitate creativity.
In addition, scientists believe a correlation between bilingualism and an increased resistance to symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly exists. Though preliminary, research results consistently show that bilingualism strengthens certain brain functions.
The psychosocial benefits of bilingualism include adaptability, an appreciation of diversity, an increased capacity for compassion, and greater emotional intelligence.
Bilinguals think in two languages. Even while they remain unaware of this, their brains process information in both languages (Freemark & Smith, 2014). This makes them more adaptable to varied situations. They also have an increased ability to monitor their environment (Bhattacharjee, 2012) and can make changes faster, when necessary.
Learning two (or more) languages encourages an individual to learn about the cultures from which the languages come. Children receiving a bilingual education, for example, are exposed to cultures and people different from themselves. Later, this increases their appreciation of diversity. I grew up speaking both French and English. I heard many languages spoken throughout my childhood and I now find that I am naturally drawn to people of differing cultures. In fact, most of my friends come from a culture different from mine. I appreciate others’ culture and am often eager to learn about their customs. My children, who attend a French immersion school, also seem more interested than their monolingual peers in people and cultures from around the world.
Bilingualism shrinks the world. When we expose ourselves to different cultures and people, we better understand others’ experience. This understanding facilitates compassion and empathy for others. When one can communicate in more than one language, one can communicate with more people. Being exposed to more diverse cultures opens up the world—especially for a child. As adults, bilinguals are better prepared to interact with people from all over the world with ease and confidence.
Because bilinguals possess a higher capacity for self-monitoring, they tend to have a higher level of emotional intelligence. Their brains, as well as their experiences with differing cultures and peoples, allow them to be more aware of their own internal world. As such, they are more prone to self-awareness—an important skill that leads to mental and emotional health.
Bilingualism rates continue to rise in the United States. More and more American parents, witnessing our country’s decline as a world super power, realize their children will need to learn another language in order to succeed in an increasingly globalized world economy. Several school districts now recognize the benefits of a bilingual education and have increased their foreign language offerings.
Cultural diversity continues to be a source of tension in the United States. Although we have made great strides, we do not yet fully accept differences. Bilingualism can help bridge that gap. Armed with a greater potential for self-awareness and empathy, bilinguals can lead the way by working collaboratively and creatively with others to solve problems.