The Benefits of Bilingualism

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The United States falls behind the world in terms of language: over half of the speakers in the world can use at least two languages. Comparatively, only 20% of speakers in the United States are bilingual. While English is the predominant language in the world, the utility of speaking more than one language is undeniable. Unfortunately, bilingualism in the home often fades out the longer a family has been in a new country. For example, immigrants to the United States from Italy may speak Italian to family members both old and young, but as the children grow up and the older generations pass away, the younger generations use less of their native language and rely more on the dominating language of the country, English. Eventually, the Italian usage within the family diminishes, resulting in monolingualism in the household. 

Spanish usage in particular in the United States is statistically increasing, leading more and more employers to seek candidates who are comfortable in both English and Spanish. American schools require students to begin studying a second language, typically Spanish or French, around age twelve, or at the beginning of high school, age fourteen. Monolingual students may find the learning of a foreign language to be just that- foreign. Studying and engaging with a new alphabet and vocabulary with a unique set of grammatical rules is often a daunting task that many students find to be the most challenging subject area. The result is the vast majority of high school graduates have minimal knowledge of a secondary language that they likely will not find very useful in their lifetime. This struggle is largely due to the fact that acquisition of a second language becomes harder with age. Research has shown that children under the age of ten are most apt to learning bilingualism while they are simultaneously learning their primary language.  

Many parents are often discouraged when it comes to raising a child with two languages, believing that the second vocabulary will be confusing to the child or that they will face slower language development. The conception that everyone speaks English also serves to dissuade people from pursuing fluency in other languages. Prior to new research, bilingualism had been considered a hindrance in language acquisition. However, the challenge of deciphering between two languages actually works to strengthen cognitive functions. This certainly presents an early challenge in the learning process, but ultimately heightens brain functionality. A 2011 study by Laine and Hughdahl published in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition found that bilingualism is positively related to increased cognitive functioning and attention. These results indicate that bilingual adults are more successful than monolinguals in terms of focusing their attention. Because of this increased brain functioning, bilinguals also tend to have delayed onset of dementia. 

The cognitive skills of bilinguals, also known as their executive control, is superior to monolinguals. This is a vital difference as this functionality is one of the first facets of the mind that deteriorates in the aging process. The cognition of bilinguals, then, while initially challenged during the early acquisition process, presents a serious advantage. 

Having a mastery of two languages also allows for easier acquisition of other languages. The more languages a speaker is familiar with, the better their understanding of how to communicate. Understanding more than one language gives speakers a greater appreciation for not just their own cultures, but for the cultures they have not yet met. Bilinguals have a greater affinity for new experiences and encounters because of their enhanced interpersonal skills. As bilingual children grow up, their language skills allow them to communicate more effectively than monolingual speakers. Not only can they talk to a greater amount of people, they can also employ code-switching to articulate themselves when their first language is insufficient. 

True bilingualism is very rare, thus most bilinguals are classified as being highly competent, with a tendency toward their dominant language. Since it inevitably takes longer to learn two languages at the same time, children learn best when they are constantly exposed to both languages in an interactive setting. Reading along with the child, singing, watching educational videos, and attending a secondary language school are all helpful ways to facilitate language development.  

On the website Fluent in Three Months, several methods of effectively teaching children two languages are explained. Using OPOL (One Person One Language) each parent speaks a different language to the child in order to ensure equal amounts of exposure, and theoretically, less mixing of languages. ML@H (Minority Language at Home) would be an example of children speaking English at school but speaking their other language at home with their family. With MLP (Mixed Language Policy) the parents choose which language they will speak to the child in based on the situation. 

Introducing two languages simultaneously to a baby can make a lasting difference. The ability to communicate in two forms allows the child to have strong interpersonal and cognitive skills that are extremely desirable in the world today. It also presents the opportunity to continue cultural traditions that could otherwise be lost in a sea of English speaking. While it may be difficult to initially acquire two vocabularies, the language skills that grow out of this process are invaluable.