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Ten lesser-known facts about bilinguals

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

Yesterday was International Mother Tongue (Language) Day, and it made me think about the lesser-known advantages or hidden benefits of being bilingual. Below are ten facts that will blow your mind!

1. Bilinguals are a worldwide majority

Countries across the globe have migrants that live and work in a country other than their country of birth. Around the world, more than half of the world's population speak more than one language. Many countries have more than one official language, such as Canada, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland and let's not forget, South Africa with eleven official languages. If you are bilingual, you will be part of a 70% majority worldwide who speaks more than one language.

2. Bilinguals have more grey matter

It is a myth that teaching children another language at an early age would delay their language skills or somehow impede their overall intellectual growth. Over the years, I've met so many people expressing their regrets about their parents not teaching them their mother tongue. Scientific research discovered that speaking more than one language may have cognitive benefits from childhood to old age. Studies of brain scans in children under five years old revealed a greater density of grey matter in areas of the brain associated with language processing in people who learned a second language.

In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists, led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego[1], found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. The higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.

3. Bilinguals are more adaptable, focused, and resilient

Bilinguals switch between different languages daily, depending on the context of their environment. You may speak one language at work and another at home, or one language with your family and another with your friends. The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals are as fundamental as their heightened ability to monitor their environment. Language switching is a technique that bilinguals use when communicating with monolinguals. According to experts, language switching is enabled by inhibitory control. Language co-activation is the parallel activity of the two languages, and to limit competition between the two languages, the inhibitory control mechanism kicks in. This control prevents you from answering based on emotion and not logic. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) plays a crucial role in language switching. Since bilinguals have to use the ACC more, they have more grey matter. As such, they can multitask, focus on tasks and solve problems.

A researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain[2], Albert Costa, stated that bilinguals often have to switch languages. Therefore, it requires a speaker to keep track of their surroundings in the same way they monitor their surroundings when driving. This linguistic flexibility helps the brain to adapt quickly to change, meaning that new or unfamiliar situations – even ones that have nothing to do with language – don't feel as challenging as they otherwise might. This adaptability further enhances your mental resilience in life.

4. Bilinguals enjoy global travelling more

If your first or second language is one of the leading world languages, especially English, then no matter where you go in the world, it is likely that you'll be able to communicate and express your needs. This ability will make travelling a lot easier for you![3]

When you can communicate through a common language with the people around you, you'll have a less stressful and more relaxing experience than someone unable to speak to the local people. Being Afrikaans, mother-tongue speakers helped us immensely travelling in Europe and Africa. We could read and understand many words and phrases while touring the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Namibia and Botswana.

5. Bilinguals are better listeners

Bilinguals hear the phrase "Sorry, what did you say?" too often. This condition that most monolinguals have is called "accent deafness". Lynne Murphy, professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex[4], concluded that accent deafness is attributed to inattention. People can hear the differences between the accents; however, it takes a lot of conscious effort. It is not because they are rude or doing it on purpose to annoy you. Bilinguals are more aware of the accent differences due to their daily awareness of being misunderstood, and in return, they develop better listening skills than monolinguals.

6. Bilinguals have enhanced social connections

A Czech proverb states: "Learn a new language and get a new soul". Children speaking more than one language from an early age are introduced to the idea that the world is diverse with different languages and cultures to explore[5]. By learning another language, you know more about the culture, food and traditions. Therefore, you connect on a new level with another language group or culture. Not only will it open opportunities that allow you to understand other people and their traditions better, but you will also appreciate their religion(s) and history associated with the new language.

7. Bilinguals are more empathetic and emotionally intelligent

A better understanding of other people and their traditions promotes empathy, expanding your skillset. It is well-researched that bilingualism makes it easy to express positive attitudes, makes you more open-minded, presents you with new perspectives, and makes you more aware of discrimination. Ludwig Witterstein[6], an Austrian philosopher who himself spoke three languages, once said, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." Speaking a second language gives you access to cultures, experiences and traditions that you wouldn't have without speaking that language.

8. Bilinguals have more job opportunities and are better paid

The New American Economy (NAE) report from 2017 found that the demand for bilingual workers doubled in the past five years. The report showed that employers increasingly desired workers who speak multiple languages, particularly in industries that provide services involving a high degree of human interaction[7].

Bilingual employees make between 5-20% more per hour than monolingual employees. Small business and corporate companies are missing out on new business because they cannot answer clients' questions. Language barriers are a recurring issue. Due to this, companies lose a lot of business. Can you imagine being offered the top job at a company to open a new office in a multi-cultural city because of your language skills? With the increased globalisation of work and travel, employment opportunities for interpreters and translators will grow by an estimated 18%.

9. Bilinguals have increased creativity

Bilingual people have advanced creativity, and speaking more than one language enhances the brain's capability to think out of the box. When it comes to challenges in the office, bilinguals are likely to come up with intelligent solutions. This attribute makes it easier for bilinguals to find better opportunities and formulate innovative ideas to improve service delivery to customers. Needless to say that many bilinguals are entrepreneurs and business owners.

10. Bilinguals are more attractive to a potential partner

Don't we all want an open-minded, adaptable, empathetic, emotionally intelligent, creative partner who also has a pleasant accent? A recent survey with more than three thousand people was surveyed across the UK and the USA to see how bilingualism is perceived. Over two-thirds of the respondents said that speaking a second language makes people more attractive. Some people may prefer certain accents, but you will open up your dating options to a whole new group of people by speaking another language. If you learn French, for example, you'll be able to communicate with the 275 million people worldwide who speak French. That's a lot of dates!

Bilingualism is a gift you can give your children that will keep on giving. I hope this article will inspire you to keep up the excellent work teaching your children and grandchildren your mother-tongue. If you are monolingual, let's start learning that second language you always wanted to speak. It doesn't matter at what age you start; you will still reap the benefits.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

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