Building Better Hearts and Minds: The Benefits of a Multilingual World

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe recently unveiled plans to simplify visa procedures, reform tuition fees, and boost English courses at French universities over the next decade. The goal here is to more than double the number of foreign students attending French universities over the next decade.

“Many countries are already building global attractive strategies, linking studies, the job market, tourism, which explains the influence of Asia or monarchies in the Gulf,” Philippe told reporters as he presented the government’s “Welcome to France” plan.

Philippe said the number of courses taught in English, which have been increased fivefold since 2004, would be further boosted. This is good news, as increasing rates of multilingualism within a country’s borders can only lead to a person’s personal enrichment, increased ties between generations and cultures, and more diversity in job opportunities.

Nevertheless, there are those who dispute that there truly is any benefit to being multilingual. Compounded with a global rise in xenophobic and nationalistic trends, there are active opponents to multilingual (and multicultural, in general) civilisation, arguing for a completely homogenous society sometimes to the point of violence. These proponents of homogenised culture are generally driven by a fear of losing their own cultural identities as well as, oftentimes, privileged social statuses. Unfortunately, those blinded by fear are unable to see the beauty in multilingual learning, a benefit in and of itself to any humanitarian.

The good news is that most people are caught up arguing whether the benefits of multilingualism actually exist, rather than claiming that learning multiple languages is bad — an allegation which has been ruled out by the modern scientific community. While some of the proposed benefits and the studies that “prove them” have recently been contested, there are still clear and established benefits to reap from learning a second language at any age.

The Benefits of Learning Multiple Languages

If history is any indicator, researchers used to think that bilingual babies were at disadvantage to their monolingual counterparts. It was believed that trying to cram multiple languages into one head — specifically a child’s head — would lead to negative effects, such as a halved intellectual and spiritual growth-rates. One professor, practising in 1926, even went so far as to state that “the use of a foreign language in the home is one of the chief factors in producing mental retardation,“ according to Ed Yong, writing for The Atlantic.

Nothing could be further from the truth, modern science has found. According to a study co-authored by Janet Werker, “if you speak in two languages in your home, you should not fear that you would be confusing the baby [at all]…” but instead should realise that bilingual babies learn new strategies early on in life that can be invaluable as they grow.

This is corroborated by material found on the University of Cincinnati’s website, which focuses more on the benefits of students learning a second language, but still shows how new strategies can develop alongside learning a new language. Among others, the benefits they list include:

  • Enhanced Reading Ability
  • Increased Creativity
  • Closing Achievement Gaps
  • Improved Listening Abilities

Apparently, children and students aren’t the only ones who benefit from multilingual educations either. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, writing for the New York Times, explains how the elderly might benefit from having learned multiple languages when they were younger:

“In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologie Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — 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.”

Better or Worse?

While there seem to be demonstrable benefits to knowing a second language, some people still seem to be hung up on whether it’s “better” or “worse” to be multilingual. Mathematically, however, it’s hard to deny that there are benefits to knowing “more” of anything.

“Less than a quarter of the UK population are bilingual,” says ed tech writer Zahid Rafiq. “…learning a language, then, gives you an advantage over three-quarters of the population, piquing the interest of employers across the country.”

It seems simple to quantify in such as a fashion, and yet, we still have those who are dedicated to disputing the benefits of multilingualism. This argument has played out over the last couple of years between Kenneth Paap, a psychologist at San Francisco State University, and others in the linguistics community. Paap’s work focuses on “executive function” which is essentially a “catch-all term for advanced mental abilities that allow us to control our thoughts and behavior, such as focusing on a goal, ignoring distractions, switching attention, and planning for the future.”

Some studies have shown that multilingual have improved executive function. Paap argues that they do not. Unfortunately, there is no clear conclusion as to whether they do or do not — but it is certain that being multilingual, while it may not improve executive function, presents new opportunities in areas that monolinguals are not presented.

More importantly, it shows that we don’t know everything we should about this area, and that we should study it further. For example, Sean Lynch, headmaster of the Lycée Français de New York (LFNY), believes, based on his own observations, that multilingual children may exhibit social empathy sooner than children who grow up speaking only one language. This makes sense, but requires further testing to determine.

While we can’t say it’s “better” to know a second language, you can argue that it’s definitely not worse to. Maria Konnikova, writing for the New Yorker, sums it up succinctly:

“The words that we have at our disposal affect what we see—and the more words there are, the better our perception. When we learn to speak a different language, we learn to see a bigger world.”


Article written by Guest Contributer Devin Morrissey