It’s incredible to think that until recently the accepted view was that being bilingual was inherently bad. This week is International Mother Language Day which makes it timely to remind people of the benefits of being bilingual.
Until recently it was thought that bilingual children would be confused by two languages, have lower intelligence and behave in deviant ways. Many people still think that. However, there is a trend towards reversing that perception, backed up by research from the last 30 years.
The benefits of being bilingual
The bilingual brain is just wired differently. Neuroplasticity, the effort required to change between words depending on the interlocutor, makes the brain more elastic and flexible. Think about it like working out at the gym: it takes effort, but you get more toned and stronger. All that hard work brings you health and enable you to do things you couldn’t do before.
This neuroplasticity of bilinguals contributes directly or indirectly to many of these benefits
Better concentration, attention span and multitasking than monolinguals. This usually means they perform better at school. The “enhanced attentional control” that comes with switching languages constantly, has obvious implications for concentration and memory.
2. Ability to empathise
Code Switching, the process/ability if changing languages depending on the interlocutor means the bilingual person will more easily see a situation from another person’s perspective
3. Being more inclusive
Being more open minded and tolerant. High linguistic awareness makes bilinguals open to concepts of diversity and integration. It’s all that code-switching and also because when you learn a language you also learn other notions that enable you to see the others points of view. Society wins, we all win
4. Delaying cognitive decline and dementia
The neuroplasticity, that enables all the above, also delays a numbers of symptoms in later life. It’s exactly the same process as learning a new instrument or playing chess
5. It opens ups opportunities
- Languages are valued in the workplace. Recently I met an Australian who said she got most of her jobs purely because she spoke Mandarin. I know many other similar cases of people I met in the UK, who spoke Turkish, German, Spanish and French
- It makes it easier to network and connect with other people. That language may be the only thing that connects you with a stranger but it’s a great conversation starter and basis for negotiation and mutual understanding
- Makes travel easier and more rewarding
Raising bilingual children
Lets be honest here: it can be hard. It requires serious commitment, but it’s well worth it. As a parent, there is another benefit of raising bilingual children which is to do with one’s own identity and our own special bond with our children.
I asked Tasnim Firdaus, a Linguist and Director of Language and Literature Programmes at The Mehfil for her advice on how best raise bilingual children:
“If you’re looking to share your mother tongue with your children, speak, speak, speak. Children up to the age of 7 learn by listening and speaking, which is why they speak without hesitating; they just copy. Children up to the age of seven can learn a number of languages at the same time. They can pick up and respond in all four languages without being confused.
Sometimes parents whose child is late speaking worry that it’s because they speak two languages at home – this is a myth. They are always processing language and when they do start speaking, they don’t have any problems”
Tasnim recommends that the best way is to start teaching languages very early, from birth to three years old. It’s possible to do it later, but the sooner the child is exposed to the language, the more benefits they will enjoy and the more proficient they will be.
One word of advice
I’d like to add, from my experience, that the sooner one starts, the easier it is for all involved. I wasn’t fully aware of this and, next thing I knew, my children were 2 and 4 years old and I had, in my opinion, not done enough to help them be as fluent as I’d like them to be. It means that I had to try harder later on.
If we had agreed on a strategy and stuck with it, those good habits would have solidified and it would have made it a lot easier for the whole family. As it is, I struggled to speak my mother tongue consistently for the first 4 years of having children and now I’m playing catch up.
Read about our journey so far.
Search ‘bilingual benefits’ in Google and you’ll find thousands of results. Most will concur with the above. Want to read more on the subject? These articles are interesting:
Read also my guest post for Mummy’s Gin Fund to mark Mother Language Day.
If you’re a bilingual family or family to be interested in the subjects, we’d love to know how we can support. Drop us a line.