We all have different hobbies and things that we enjoy. Some of us like to build technology, others like to exercise, and still others like to talk! Those of us who love to talk and communicate may become obsessed with becoming bilingual or even polylingual because then we can talk more to more people. And there is nothing wrong with that! Being bilingual opens the world to you. When you learn to speak another language, you are not only able to travel to more places with ease, you also expand your consciousness and understanding of the world. Being bilingual means that you can speak two languages fluently. Fluent can be somewhat subjective, but is defined as “being able to express oneself easily and articulately”. So while you don’t have to be a grammar scholar in a language to be considered fluent, you do need to be able to express yourself without much difficulty. English is my first language, and I also speak French and Spanish. I am fluent in French and was fluent in Spanish, but I haven’t used it much in the last two years so I am out of practice. I can tell you from experience that these have all proven to be true for me.
8 Surprising Benefits of Being Bilingual
1. Increase your vocabulary
If you learn a language that is related to your own, you can actually increase your vocabulary in your own language too! For example, American English has adopted many Spanish words due to its proximity to South America. Many of these words relate to food, but words like patio, desperado, and corral are also Spanish. English in general shares many words with French. In fact, it is estimated that English and French share some 60% of words. Examples include rapport, silhouette, and souvenir.
2. Become a better reader
There is a phenomenon that happens when people read. They tend to look at the first and last letters of a word and then decided what the word was. But when you read in your second language, you can’t use this cheat because you don’t know it well enough. Our brains are conditioned through repetition, and so, as we repeatedly have to look at all of the letters in a word while we read our second language, we carry that over into reading in our first language.
3. Become a better listener
Just like you have to pay close attention when reading, you also have to listen closely to make sure you understand what people are saying when they are speaking in your second language. All of this practice of repeatedly listening closely also carries over into your first language.
4. Gain a new perspective
The language you speak influences the way you see the world. For example, a study was done on German and English speakers where they asked them to describe a picture. The picture had a person in action, like a woman walking in a parking lot. The German speakers attached a goal to the scene by saying something like, “the woman walks to her car.” But the English speakers simply said she was walking. This is because the English language is focused on the present action. We add -ing to show that something is happening. In German, they do not. I can tell you from experience that this is true for me. I can’t really explain how I see the world through English speaking eyes because I have always seen it that way. But French and Spanish stick out because I was older when I learned them. When I see the world in French, I notice the colors and shapes of things more. All kinds of adjectives flow through my mind and I can describe everything with elegance. In Spanish, I see the world as raw and natural, I use more verbs, and my sense of taste and smell seem heightened.
5. Add to your personality
This goes hand in hand with the new perspective you gain from learning another language. Many people who speak more than one language will tell you that they feel differently when using different languages. Part of this may be due to proficiency, but psychologists have been studying this recently and have come up with a theory.In one study, “Baruch College Professor David Luna and his colleagues asked Hispanic American bilingual women students to interpret target advertisements picturing women, first in one language and, six months later, in the other. They found that in the Spanish sessions, the bilinguals perceived women in the ads as more self-sufficient as well as extrovert. In the English sessions, however, they expressed more traditional, other-dependent and family-oriented views of the women.”It was concluded that the women were not actually having a change in their own personality, but that they were viewing the world through the other language. Culture and language are directly linked and it makes sense that the world described in one language would be different than that of another.
6. Improve decision making and multitasking
When you speak two languages, you brain is constantly having to decide which one to speak. This can be easy to do on a day where you only have to speak one language. But on days that you speak both, and especially if you are going back and forth between the two quickly, your brain gets a real workout. It is times like this when you find yourself thinking in both languages at the same time, the ultimate multitasking.Because you are alway having to make decisions on which words to use, it is believed that you become better at making decisions in general, thanks to all the practice!
7. Grow your brain
Being bilingual can actually make your brain bigger! Studies done using MRIs have shown that bilingual people’s brains are actually larger in certain areas. What’s more is that students who found learning new languages to be easy showed growth in the hippocampus, which is associated with memory, and cerebral cortex, which is where most of our information processing happens. All of this brain growth leads us to our final surprising benefit of being bilingual.
8. Delay onset of diseases like Alzheimer's
The increase in gray matter coupled with the increased use of the executive control function of the brain work to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s in bilingual people. A 2010 Canadian study found that bilingual people were able to maintain brain function longer and delayed onset of the disease by four years compared to people who spoke just one language.