Learning a New Language
Kalbate lietuviškai? Mluvíte česky? Ez hitz egiten duzu euskaraz? Forty-three percent of the world's population knows a second language ("Multilingual People," 2016), so they would answer those questions with "yes." The world's bilingual population comes from all over the planet, and they have a variety of reasons for being bilingual. Why do so many people need or want to be bilingual? In some countries, being bilingual is a necessity for survival because there is an official language (different from the language spoken at home) that is essential for business and legal transactions. In other countries, bilingualism is not essential for survival, but knowing another language provides economic or educational advantages.
Whatever the reason they may have for learning another language, bilingual people experience some incredible advantages because of how bilingualism affects their life. There are benefits that everyone thinks of, like being able to travel, but there are also advantages that may be surprising. These benefits are not limited to survival. Learning a second language yields mental, cultural, and economic benefits.
One of the mental benefits that can be gained by learning a second language is that it may help protect your brain against the effects of some diseases that attack the brain. According to Alban (2015), diseases like dementia and Alzheimer's can be delayed for bilingual people by 4.5 years; this is "…significantly better than the best Alzheimer's drugs which can delay symptoms by only 6-12 months" (para. 24). These diseases are very serious and being able to delay the onset of these diseases is a clear benefit for learning a new language.
In addition to delaying mental disease that accompanies aging, learning a language can help compensate for memory loss, which is another common result of aging. Scientists say this memory loss is compensated for in bilinguals because bilingual brains seem to have more available ability to think (Alban, 2015). While memory loss isn't reversible, it is less severe for bilingual people because they seem to have had a greater ability to think in the first place. Kamenetz (2016) described a study of the difference between bilingual brains and monolingual brains. One monolingual and one bilingual group were given a cognitive task to complete and both completed it equally well. When brain scans were completed for the participants, researchers found that the bilingual participants brains actually had evidence of memory loss, but they were still able to perform at the same level as their monolingual counterparts. It seems that learning another language helps keep the brain healthy, even as people age and experience memory loss or mental illnesses.
There are numerous other mental benefits that relate to bilingualism. Perhaps one of the most surprising of these benefits is the ability to control your attention during a mental task. Bialstok (2001) argued that bilinguals constantly have to ignore one of their languages, so they are constantly ignoring stimuli that are not relevant to their present situation. This extends to other tasks as well. The bilingual brain is better than a monolingual brain at filter- ing out what is irrelevant in order to complete a certain task (Bialstok, 2001). This ability to filter out irrelevant information may not be the first thing people think of as an advantage of bilingualism, but it is proof that bilingual brains do perform certain functions better than monolingual brains.
Some of the other cognitive advantages that are correlated with learning another language are increased memory, metalinguistic skills, cognitive development, and problem-solv- ing ability ("What the Research Shows," n.d.). These increased abilities offer a clear advantage in cognitive tasks at school, work, or home from remembering something you learn to solving an issue that arises at the office. The mental benefits associated with learning a language are truly widespread.
Learning a language also has cultural benefits. Understanding other cultures can make us more capable global citizens and help us avoid intercultural miscommunications. This understanding can come from people who have been to other places or information that is available online, but one of the best ways to learn about a culture is to experience it. Traveling to another country or talking to people who are from another culture help us recognize and appreciate other cultures. The ability to recognize that cultures other than our own are important and to appreciate them can be a result of learning another language (Morris, n.d.). Many people learn about culture because they first started learning a language. Learning a language frequently involves learning about and appreciating culture because culture and language are tightly connected (Brooks, 2010). Because of this connection, people have more cultural knowledge and appreciation when they learn another language.
Participating in target-culture entertainment is another cultural benefit of learning another language. By learning another language and being able to participate more fully in the movies, literature, and music of that culture, that target-culture entertainment is more meaningful. A lot of culture is conveyed through movies, literature, and music, so being able to participate in those things will help a bilingual person connect culturally.
Additionally, learning a new language has economic benefits. Knowing a second language can give your resume an advantage when you are applying for a job, which can be a significant economic benefit. Many employers want to hire bilingual employees because they can work in different cultural situations and facilitate transactions in another language (Morris, n.d.). Bilingual employees are better able to work in different cultural situations because their life involves constantly being in different cultural situations. Bilingual employees are especially valuable in service industries, large businesses that trade with other countries, and many government agencies (Morris, n.d.). Knowing a second language can give people an advantage in these jobs because they are constantly in contact with people from other places and they need to communicate with them.
Getting a better job is a lot easier for people who have learned a new language, but the economic benefits don't end with employment. Bilinguals can also make sure they are not taken advantage of while traveling to certain places. If a tourist does not speak the language of the country or does not understand a cultural expectation to barter, for example, they will end up spending more money than they would have if they knew the language and the culture. In both employment and travel, being bilingual is a clear economic advantage.
Learning a new language gives people multiple benefits for their lives, such as helping them find a good job, improving their cultural understanding, and strengthening their brain. These advantages may not be the first things you think of when you think about the advantages of learning another language, but they are wonderful benefits you can expect if you are bilingual, and this is only a small portion of the benefits that have been discovered. In addition to all of the other things that might motivate you to learn another language, these benefits may give you a new motivation to join the large population of bilingual people in the world. It is not simple to learn a language, but that one decision (along with a lot of practice) will have many effects that can last for a lifetime. In the future, you could proudly answer "yes" if someone asked você fala português?