It is estimated that there are over 6,500 living languages around the world. The exact figure is difficult to determine because language and dialect are not so easy to distinguish from one another. Since there are literally thousands of languages in the world, it is natural to assume that there would be many advantages for someone who can speak than more than one language.
Most commonly spoken languages
The top three languages spoken around the world are Mandarin, Spanish and English. These are three of the six official languages used by the United Nations (the other are Arabic, French and Russian). There are over 1.2 billion Mandarin speakers all over the world, half a billion Castilian Spanish speakers and about 1.5 billion English speakers around the world.
Other most commonly spoken languages around the world are Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. Arabic is one of the world’s most commonly spoken languages and is spoken by 175 million people around the globe, with ten variants within spoken Arabic.
Given this much diversity in the world, it has become more and more common for people to speak more than one language. After all, the world we live in today has become more and more interrelated. Economies are no longer defined by land borders, music has transcended boundaries and the technology has facilitated global communications at an unparalleled level.
It’s part of our lives
More and more schools are requiring a foreign language as part of the curriculum instead of becoming an optional class. This is in recognition of the growing need for a bilingual and multi-lingual population. At the same time, research from the National Center of Educational Statistics has revealed that over 20% of school aged children in America speak a language other than English at home. That translates to one in five school aged kids in the country.
More and more bilingual products and characters are emerging, such as Dora the Explorer, Diego, Maya and Miguel and Handy Manny that teach children English and Spanish. Ni Hao, Kai-Lan teaches Chinese American lessons. Special Agent Oso teaches Spanish and a smattering of French and Italian words. Their tremendous popularity is a sign of their cultural significance.
In America, more and more cities are becoming melting pots of different cultures. There is a growing Hispanic market in the country, as well as the need for fluent speakers of various languages such as Mandarin to be able to effectively communicate with a growing ethnic market. Advertising, public signs and marketing tools are now being geared to various ethnicities.
This means that becoming bilingual has become as distinct advantage in our world today.
Enhances ability to learn
When it comes to learning another language, children obviously have the advantage. When exposed to various languages at an early age, children will naturally pick them up. Although bilingual children may not speak as early as their single language counterparts, they have an enhanced mental development and better grasp of both languages by the time they are ready to speak.
Studies have shown that the gray matter of those who are bilingual is slightly larger than those who are monolingual. The brain is wired differently for bilinguals compared to monolinguals, making bilinguals perform better at nonverbal tests. Bilinguals also have an enhanced cognitive ability because the brain’s executive control system is more developed and is more efficient. This means that being bilingual is like constantly exercising your brain, therefore making it stronger and more efficient.
Improves multitasking skills
The portion of the brain that handles the ability to be bilingual is the same control system than handles the ability to multitask. This is the executive control system. Because constantly switching between two or more languages further develops the brain’s executive control system, a bilingual is able to concentrate on two activities at the same time without much compromising on quality.
Better employment opportunities
Nowadays, employers are more likely to ask about other languages spoken. Given two applicants with the same qualifications, an employer is more likely to hire someone who can speak a second language than one who doesn’t. A salesperson that speaks more languages can sell to more people, especially those who don’t speak English so well.
For international corporations, bilingual or even multilingual employees have a better chance of getting a foreign assignment than someone who can only speak one language. Someday, speaking a second language may become mandatory for employment, for companies to remain globally competitive.
Opens the door to culture
How amazing, not to mention convenient, would it be to go to another country and communicate with the locals effortlessly because you know how to speak the local tongue?
At the same time, being bilingual is a way for parents to pass on their cultural heritage to the next generation. Not only does this help kids connect to their roots and ancestors, it gives them an advantage later in life.
It’s good for your health
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Ellen Bialystok’s 40-year study on bilingualism has showed that using two languages regularly seems to affect the onset of symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Her landmark study showed that the onset of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s is delayed by as much as five to six years! This means that although being bilingual doesn’t immunize against Alzheimer’s, it does help the patient to continue functioning and enables the patient to cope with the disease for a longer period of time.
Ways to learn
Being bilingual today doesn’t just happen by happenstance anymore. Though many children are raised in bilingual homes, more and more individuals are realizing the many benefits of learning any of the most commonly used languages and making the effort to learn it. Approaches to learning including enrolling in a foreign language class, learning from books, playing with bilingual toys, using language tapes and CDs, watching foreign movies or simply immersing oneself in the culture armed only with a language translation book and an open mind.
It is clear that being bilingual isn’t merely a trend, but it is becoming a way of life. With the many awesome benefits of being bilingual, more and more people should make the effort to learn not just a few foreign words and phrases, but also make the effort to gain mastery of a new language.