Did you know that well over half of the world’s population speak more than one language? It is no surprise, with approximately 6500 different languages being spoken around the world today. Some countries, such as South Africa, recognise up to eleven official languages! Multilingualism has proven beneficial for tens of thousands of years with the best example being here, in Australia. Indigenous Australians spoke over 250 different languages before colonisation, including 800 dialectal varieties. This meant that it was not uncommon to speak four or more languages in order to communicate with neighbouring peoples. In addition to communication, the rewards of learning an additional language include cognitive benefits, having access to a wider range of opportunities and the ability to connect to different cultures.
It has only been in recent decades that the benefits of learning another language have been recognised. Decades ago, it was widely assumed that people who spoke more than one language had split personalities, lower IQs and had a tendency of intermittently switching between languages. However, in recent years, scores of research studies have indicated otherwise. These studies have shown that bilinguals outperform their monolingual counterparts in terms of executive control. The term “executive control” refers to a collection of abilities that assist people in complex mental tasks. This includes focusing attention, updating working memory and disregarding irrelevant information. Although the reason as to the link between executive control and bilingualism is unclear, researchers theorise that by speaking two (or more) languages, the brain is forced to constantly suppress one language while speaking the other. This hypothetically provides continuous mental stimulation for the brain, maintaining its health. This could also provide a reason as to why learning another language can stave off the onset of dementia by an average of five years.
In addition to cognitive benefits, learning another language allows one to connect not only to different cultures, but people as well. In learning a language, not only do people acquire the language, but they also gain a newfound support network of people from a different culture, community and sometimes country. Nelson Mandela illustrated this idea perfectly: “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. Overcoming a language barrier can reap the rewards of obtaining lifelong friends as well as a plethora of foreign TV shows to binge watch -especially during lockdown! Exposure to another language and culture also allows people to see the world and others through a second lens. This was demonstrated through a study run by the University of Chicago discovered that bilingual and semi-fluent children usually had a greater empathy towards other peoples’ perspectives and situations.
Two of the more obvious benefits of acquiring a language are the ability to travel and employability. These two advantages often complement each other, as speaking another language can allow you to work in various countries and travel around the world. Speaking another language can also open pathways to new careers such as becoming a diplomat, a flight attendant or a translator. Furthermore, a recent study conducted by Albert Saiz, an MIT economist, found that bilingual employees on average, received a two percent increase in income in comparison to their monolingual counterparts. Although this does not initially sound like much, when based on the average wage, it amounts to a sum of $128, 000 USD over the duration of forty years.
The payoff for learning a foreign language is immense, however it does require years of constant effort in order to reach proficiency. This is especially so for language learners who are not often exposed to the language in real world situations, whether that be talking to a relative or living in a country where it is widely spoken. However, with the proper motivation, and a lot of perseverance, it is certainly possible to reap the benefits – even the unexpected ones- of learning a language.