The Benefits of Multilingualism

by expert · 15 comments

The Benefits of Multilingualism - Raising Bilingual Children

By Michał B. Paradowski
Institute of Applied Linguistics,
University of Warsaw
Photo Credit: Anthony Kelley

To have another language is to possess a second soul.
— Charlemagne (742/7 – 814), King of the Franks

Multilingualism is the natural potential available to every normal human being rather than an unusual exception: “Given the appropriate environment, two languages are as normal as two lungs” (Cook 2002:23).

It need not even require the ability to speak two unrelated languages; a user of e.g. the ‘literary’ and a vernacular/dialectal variety is already multicompetent, with today only “a handful of isolated pockets of ‘pure’ monolinguals, now hard to find even in the mountains of Papua New Guinea” (ibid.). At the same time, multicompetence does not require perfect fluency in all the languages at one’s command; thus, setting the boundary would probably be a mission impossible.

The advantages that multilinguals exhibit over monolinguals are not restricted to linguistic knowledge only, but extend outside the area of language. The substantial long-lived cognitive, social, personal, academic, and professional benefits of enrichment bilingual contexts have been well documented. Children and older persons learning foreign languages have been demonstrated to:

  • have a keener awareness and sharper perception of language. Foreign language learning “enhances children’s understanding of how language itself works and their ability to manipulate language in the service of thinking and problem solving” (Cummins 1981);
  • be more capable of separating meaning from form;
  • learn more rapidly in their native language (L1), e.g. to read, as well as display improved performance in other basic L1 skills, regardless of race, gender, or academic level;
  • be more efficient communicators in the L1;
  • be consistently better able to deal with distractions, which may help offset age-related declines in mental dexterity;
  • develop a markedly better language proficiency in, sensitivity to, and understanding of their mother tongue;
  • develop a greater vocabulary size over age, including that in their L1;
  • have a better ear for listening and sharper memories;
  • be better language learners in institutionalized learning contexts because of more developed language-learning capacities owing to the more complex linguistic knowledge and higher language awareness;
  • have increased ability to apply more reading strategies effectively due to their greater experience in language learning and reading in two—or more—different languages;
  • develop not only better verbal, but also spatial abilities;
  • parcel up and categorize meanings in different ways;
  • display generally greater cognitive flexibility, better problem solving and higher-order thinking skills;
  • “a person who speaks multiple languages has a stereoscopic vision of the world from two or more perspectives, enabling them to be more flexible in their thinking, learn reading more easily. Multilinguals, therefore, are not restricted to a single world-view, but also have a better understanding that other outlooks are possible. Indeed, this has always been seen as one of the main educational advantages of language teaching” (Cook 2001);
  • multilinguals can expand their personal horizons and—being simultaneously insiders and outsiders—see their own culture from a new perspective not available to monoglots, enabling the comparison, contrast, and understanding of cultural concepts;
  • be better problem-solvers gaining multiple perspectives on issues at hand;
  • have improved critical thinking abilities;
  • better understand and appreciate people of other countries, thereby lessening racism, xenophobia, and intolerance, as the learning of a new language usually brings with it a revelation of a new culture;
  • learn further languages more quickly and efficiently than their hitherto monolingual peers;
  • to say nothing of the social and employment advantages of being bilingual – offering the student the ability to communicate with people s/he would otherwise not have the chance to interact with, and increasing job opportunities in many careers.

Thus, just like Latin once used to be taught as an academic exercise, mental gymnastics with the aim of cognitive training, it has been demonstrated that people who know more than one language usually think more flexibly than monolinguals. Many celebrated bilingual writers—such as John Milton, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Barclay Beckett, or Iosif Brodsky—attest that knowing a second language enhances the use of the first.

NOTE: This is a condensed, shortened version of the original article with all but a few of the references removed.  To read the full article and the article’s full references go to the full text of the research article: The Benefits of Multilingualism – Full Article.

REFERENCES (more references in Full Article)

Cook, Vivian J. (2001) Requirements for a multilingual model of language production. Retrieved from homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/Writings/Papers/RequirementsForMultilingualModel.htm

———— (Ed.) (2002) Portraits of the L2 User. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Cummins, James P. (1981) The Role of Primary Language Development in Promoting Educational Success for Language Minority Students. In Leyba, F. C. (Ed.) Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework. Los Angeles, CA: Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center, California State University, 3-49.

Michał B. Paradowski is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw; he has also taught EFL at an elite high school. His interests include issues relating to second language acquisition research, the effects of formal instruction, and foreign language teaching in general. Dr Paradowski has authored a number of journal articles and book chapters, delivered presentations at several international conferences, and refereed submissions to recognized linguistics quarterlies.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jimmy Will January 19, 2011 at 9:57 pm

according to me Multilingualism is harmful of us because its doesn’t show unity…
Jimmy Will´s last blog post ..Web Development Services india updated Tue Jan 18 2011 3-44 am CST

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2 Himanshu April 26, 2011 at 12:14 pm

One Example – India. It is united not on the basis of anything else but complete diversity. Oh and plus you get to have all the benefits of being multilingual/cultural person!!

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3 Jessica June 28, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Knowing English, Chinese & Spanish can help if you travel to most of the countries. I disagree with Jimmy because unity has nothing to do with language, it’s the religions that are dividing people not language.

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4 afrial January 15, 2012 at 7:01 am

i have own language, my country has various language because we are consist of hundreds cultures with its own language.
I have my children to power some languages, four from our own culture/ language and one of international languge, I choose English for international language.
I have three children who can speak in five different language.
They have no problem with their daily conversation, they can choose with whom they are talking.
I believe that it gave them much benefits with their abilities in various langage.
afrial´s last blog post ..SEPULUH KESALAHAN DALAM MENGHADAPI TES MATEMATIKA

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5 love 1213 May 15, 2013 at 8:12 am

you are rigth Abouot that because you can communicat whith other peopl

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6 Jase September 5, 2012 at 4:11 am

In my opinion it is not language or religion what divides people/cultures or disables unity, but merely the perceptions and ideas of people. Religion can only stand in the way of unity if people let it. And they do, ofcourse. But only if we are prepared to look over differences in any way, we can encourage unity. And it is easier to do this if you are acquainted with several languages, because then we can communicate with a wider variety of people, which helps us understand them and their cultures.

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7 Carlos September 22, 2012 at 10:54 am

I think your post reflects most of the main reasons why many people do not want to learn a foreign language. I would like to add one more though. Learning a second language involves, in most cases, learn also a new culture. There are many cultures in the world, and many of them are certainly different in several aspects. Some people are not interested in learning a language from a territory or country whose culture has characteristics totally opposed to their own. In some cases, we tend to underestimate anything that is different from what we are accustomed. Then, why should we learn a language from a country which has almost nothing in common with mine? From my point of view, I think that we still have many prejudices that negatively affect the learning of a foreign language. Anyway, I think the list about “ten excuses to not learn a foreign language” is, fortunately, much shorter than all the reasons that we have to learn other languages. Your “Benefits of Multilingualism” post is a clear proof of it.

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8 adiara February 20, 2013 at 1:47 am

i think that it is very important to learn many languages, it can permit you to get more opportunities about culture diversity to communicate more easily, travel like you want without the help of anyone else then your life can be very wonderful.

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9 Jeffrey Nelson September 5, 2013 at 10:22 pm

More benefits are cited on my blog, here: http://livingbilingual.com/2013/05/24/what-are-the-benefits-of-being-bilingual

I disagree completely with the comments that multilingualism is harmful because it doesn’t promote unity.

Jeff

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