10 benefits of bilingualism, according to science
- A growing body of research shows how bilingualism benefits us.
- Speaking multiple languages reduces your risk of dementia, makes you more empathetic, improves certain cognitive functions, and makes you more attractive.
- While it's hard to isolate bilingualism entirely as a single factor, the evidence all points to great advantages in learning a second language.
Bilingual people are incredibly attractive. If you don’t agree with me, I’m afraid you’re in the minority. Being able to speak two or more languages comes with a whole host of benefits (not least for your love life). A great and growing body of research has focused on the psychological, economic, and health benefits of being bilingual. Speaking many languages improves a host of cognitive functions, across all stages of life, and it affects our emotional and social attitudes, as well. The scientific world is starting to take seriously the life-changing advantages to speaking multiple languages.
That’s great, but what benefits are we talking about exactly? What specific advantages would learning French or Spanish give you? Here are ten practical benefits from bilingualism:
1. It makes learning languages easier
Let’s start with an obvious one. If you can speak two languages already, chances are that you’re pretty good at learning them. According to a study from the University of Haifa, those who are bilingual find it much easier to learn a third or fourth language. Even discounting for other factors, like differences in IQ, reading abilities, or other cognitive aspects, bilingualism can be isolated as a causal factor in increasing the chances of being able to learn a new language quickly.
Takeaway: If you learn one new language, others will come much easier.
2. Bilingualism makes you better at multitasking
Bilinguals are in a near constant state of linguistic multitasking. When they have to function in a world outside their first or native language, they have to switch, shift, and process different languages in real-time. The rub is that bilinguals are better at non-linguistic multitasking as well. In one study, a team had children do two tasks: first, to match animals’ noises to the proper animal picture, and, second, to match letters to a musical instrument. When bi- and monolingual children did the tasks individually, they did roughly as well. When they had to do them together — as a multitasking activity — the bilingual children were considerably better.
Takeaway: Operating on multiple languages makes you better at multiple anything.
3. It makes you more empathetic
Empathy is the ability to relate to someone else and to see things as they do. And bilinguals are better at it. A major review of the research into this concludes “acquiring two languages helps Theory of Mind development… [which is] the ability to attribute mental states to other people and to predict and explain other people’s behavior on the basis of those attributed mental states.” Bilingualism allows people to adopt a “metalinguistic” position more easily — that is, seeing a language as only one of many. It’s a skill highly transferable to Theory of Mind.
Takeaway: Entering into a different linguistic system makes it easier to enter another’s mind.
4. You’ll be more popular
If being bilingual makes you more empathetic, you’re probably going to be more likable too. This is because Theory of Mind helps in the development of prosocial behaviors. Children who develop an advanced Theory of Mind are better conversationalists, more socially mature, and are often rated as the most popular in class. If bilingualism makes you more empathetic, and empathy makes you popular, bilingualism is likely to make you more popular.
Takeaway: Bilingual children are more popular and better conversationalists.
5. Bilingualism helps you see things differently
The language you speak helps determine how you interpret actions. Imagine you see a person walking down the street to meet a friend. Do you focus on the act of walking, or do you focus on the goal of the walking — that is, meeting a friend? English and French tend to do the latter; German and Swedish the former. What’s interesting is how bilingual people can flip-flop between the two. They will switch to whatever “goal orientation” perspective the spoken language demands.
Takeaway: Bilinguals can interpret aspects of the world according to whichever language they are speaking.
6. It can make you richer
If you speak more than one language, you are likelier to get paid more over the course of your life. An article in The Economist (in response to a Freakonomics podcast) described that being bilingual would increase your salary by two percent over 40 years, about $67,000 by the time you retire. The effects are more marked depending on what language you can speak. The Economist showed that German can boost earnings by 3.8%. Data from Salary.com shows “Arabic is the most lucrative language in the UK, with speakers benefitting from 74% higher salaries, on average,” and “Arab speakers in teaching; accounting and finance; IT; sales; and PR, advertising, and marketing see the biggest salary boosts.”
Takeaway: Learning a language will get you a pay boost — with a bonus for Mandarin, Arabic, and German.
7. It can make your country richer, too
And it’s not just you who can benefit financially. The more a local area, state, or country can speak another language, the greater its economic output. Economists from the University of Geneva estimate one-tenth of Switzerland’s GDP is due to its multilingualism. Research by the RAND Corporation think tank has argued that increasing language acquisition in UK schoolchildren could boost the economy from between £9 billion (for Spanish) to £12 billion (for Mandarin).
Takeaway: If you want to be a good citizen, it’s time to learn a new language.
8. Bilingualism reduces the chances of, and slows the worsening of, Alzheimer’s
As we get older, the more our cognitive functions will grind to a halt. With gray hair comes a loss of essential gray matter in the brain. At its worst and most extreme, this will manifest itself as dementia (of which Alzheimer’s is the most common). But, according to a huge meta-analysis of all the various studies on the topic, learning and speaking multiple language helps in two ways. First, it reduces the chances of getting dementia. Second, if you were to get dementia, it slows its onset and lessens the symptoms. Of course, this is not to say bilingualism stops people getting dementia, but it is a significant factor in reducing your chances from suffering its effects.
Takeaway: Bilingualism exercises cognitive functions that help reduce the risk of dementia.
9. It improves certain executive functions
All those little jobs your brain does without any praise or consideration are called executive functions. If you tap your left hand while reading this sentence, that’s an executive function. If you decide to read this sentence backward, that’s an executive function. Bilinguals are better at certain kinds of them, namely, those that involve flipping between different types of brain activation. The classic one is the “Stroop test,” which asks you to read out words for colors (like “red” or “orange”) that are written in the same or a different color of ink. Bilinguals are not better at all kinds of executive functions, but in a few specific ones, they’re definitely ahead of the pack.
Takeaway: Being able to flip between languages makes it easier to flip between executive functions.
10. It makes you more attractive
But let’s come to the most important reason of all. Being able to speak another language is sexy. It’s exotic, mysterious, and intelligent. But which language is best if you want to win at love? In one study, a team put heart monitors on participants and then measured which languages got the heart racing fastest. Unsurprisingly, the winner was Italian, with Portuguese and French coming in next. And if you happen to be Dutch, German, or Japanese and are reading this, I’m sorry, I’ve got bad news for you…
Takeaway: Learning languages makes you sexier. (Does not apply to German.)
While there is a lot of evidence that shows bilingualism to be beneficial, it might not be so clear-cut. A lot of the research done into learning languages is reputable and thorough, and researchers try to focus on bilingualism as an isolated factor. The problem, though, is that humans are an infuriating tangle of complications. People who have the ability to learn a second language, especially in English-dominant countries, are often better schooled, wealthier, and privileged in other ways as well. As such, it’s hard to isolate bilingualism entirely as the factor for all of the ten points above.
But even with this caveat, the overwhelming research we have available to us reveals bilingualism to be far more beneficial than not. Even if reducing the chances of dementia, being better at certain brain functions, and being richer doesn’t persuade you, perhaps being much more attractive to everyone you meet is surely reason enough.