While I personally espouse the obvious benefits of multilingualism, some people just don’t see the point in learning a second language. They have no plans to travel or work outside their home country, and they find memorizing vocabulary and working their way through foreign grammar a mind-numbing waste of time. They also feel that their kids can decide for themselves whether or not to pursue another language when they’re old enough. Some people are certain that even if they do learn to communicate in a second language, they will never use that skill. So why bother?
Well, it turns out that studying foreign languages is a lot like eating your vegetables: it’s good for you, even if you don’t like it (or won’t use it). And, also like the vegetables, the earlier you start, the more beneficial it is.
Researchers are making huge gains in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, and one of the most exciting things they have learned is that, in addition to broadening horizons, increasing job opportunities, and the just plain cool factor of being able to communicate in more than one language, being multilingual offers tremendous benefits to the brain.
Speech and Language Pathologist Robert Kurtz lists the following seven cognitive advantages of bilingualism:
1. better metalinguistic awareness (ability to identify and describe characteristics and features of language);
2. better classification skills;
3. better concept formation;
4. better analogical reasoning;
5. better visual-spatial skills;
6. better storytelling skills;
7. better semantic development.
In a well-cited article for the ERIC Review , Kathleen M. Marcos discusses research suggesting that students who receive second language instruction are more creative and better at solving complex problems than those who do not (Bamford and Mizokawa, 1991). And in an era in which Americans have been shown to be declining in creativity, developing this type of intelligence is essential.
Other studies suggest that persons with full proficiency in more than one language (bilinguals) outperform similar monolingual persons on both verbal and nonverbal (math, critical thinking) tests of intelligence. In another study, multilingual children of average intelligence learned to read in their native language earlier than their monolingual peers.
It has long been observed that individuals proficient in a second language generally have an easier time learning subsequent languages. While such individuals are often regarded as having a talent for languages (which, to some extent, may be the case), the truth is that learning more than one language establishes the brain circuitry for language acquisition, making it easier to learn third fourth and fifth languages as well.
The advantages can play out later in life, too. For instance, multilingual stroke victims rarely lose ability in all of their languages because these languages are stored in different parts of the brain. if a stroke hits the language center of a monolingual person, her entire ability to communicate is affected, whereas multilinguals may have damage to an area in which one of their languages is stored but not in another. And as if that weren’t enough, studies on multilingual Alzheimer’s patients indicate that multilingualism can delay the onset of symptoms by as much as five years!
Yet, despite all these benefits, as well as improved performance on standardized tests (even in non-verbal subject areas) and all the obvious advantages, language instruction continuously lands on the chopping block when school districts face tight budget decisions. Perhaps if more decision makers had become multilingual at an early age, enhanced brain function would enable them to recognize that such sacrifices are foolish at best.