Advantages of being multilingual

More than half of the world's population speaks more than one language or dialect, but "the pervasive monolingual bias present within many societies threatens the wellbeing of bilingual children and their families" (Annick De Houwer, 2022).

Beyond simply knowing two or more languages and dialects (or sign languages), being multilingual offers a wide range benefits that make it a skill worth cultivating.

                                                                          

There are many reasons why being multilingual is an advantage.

  • We are better at executive functioningbecause our cognitive capabilities are enhanced, which includes reasoning, planning and problem solving. We are quicker at seeing underlying connections and foreseeing solutions, as through learning our languages we are trained to focus on what is important and what not.
  • It enhances decision-making process. As multilinguals we are more confident in decision-making choices because we pick up nuances and subtleties, and can engage in more rational decision-making.
  • Multilinguals are better at learning additional languages, in fact, with every additional language, our repertoire of words, language structures, semantic knowledge and pragmatics expands, which is a great advantage when learning another language: we are faster at "connecting the dots"!
  • We can communicate in multiple languages which gives usan advantage in the job field.
  • As multilinguals we have multiple perspectives on things. Some say that multilinguals have multiple personalities, but this is not the case. We have a multi-faceted mindset and a broader variety of ways to express our thoughts thanks to the multiple languages.
  • We are better at networkingin international (but not only international!) settings. We have a broader set of communication tools, which allows us to be very open minded. We don't get distracted by accents or other ways to express thoughts.
  • Knowing more languages makes us feel more comfortable and confident andfacilitates relationships and connections. We are attuned to our surroundings because we are used to monitor the environment, like Albert Costa (University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain) emphasizes in his study: "Bilinguals have to switch language quite often (...) It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving" – I guess that multilinguals are also better drivers?...  
  • We are better at multitasking, as we can easily switch from one language to the other, and therefore find it also easier to switch from one task to the other.
  • Being multilingual and maintaining those languages has the benefit of having a positive impact on our memory. Especially when we keep improving our languages or learn new ones, we constantly stretch our "brain muscles", which keeps our brain healthy and can delay the onset of Alzheimer's and Dementia. 

 

On this page I am adding more reasons why being multilingual and raising children with multiple languages is an advantage, and even beneficial for our overall health!

If you have an idea of an advantage of being multilingual, please let me know in the comments!

I'm happy to quote you!

 

 

Receptive Multilingualism or: we don't even need to learn another language in order to understand it! 

 

Did you know that you don't even need to have learned a language in order to understand it?
It is called “receptive multilingualism”, and it is a phenomenon which is common among speakers of similar languages where mutual understanding is assured by the closeness of the languages in question.
This phenomenon of language proximity facilitating understanding is fairly widespread within language families.
But we can also understand other languages that don't stem from the same language family thanks to loanwords that entered the vocabulary of the target language at some point of time.

For example for English:
in the Middle English Period (1100-1500) the following French words entered the English vocabulary in different domains/contexts:
–Law: attorney, chancellor, country, court, crime, evidence, government, judge, jury, noble...
–Church: abbot, chaplain, chapter, clergy, prayer, preach, priest, religion, sacrament, saint, sermon...
–Nobility: baron, baroness; count, countess; duke, duchess; marquis, marquess; prince, princess; viscount, viscountess; noble, royal
–Military: army, artillery, battle, captain, company, corporal,
defense, enemy...
–Cooking: beef, boil, broil, butcher, dine, fry, mutton, pork, poultry, roast, salmon...
–Culture/art: art, bracelet, clarinet, dance, diamond, fashion, fur, jewel, painting, pendant, satin, ruby, sculpture

Other terms: adventure, change, charge, chart, courage, devout, dignity, enamor, feign, fruit, letter, literature, magic, male, female, mirror, pilgrimage, proud, question, regard, special
Other Middle English French loans are all the words that end in
-age, -ance/-ence, -ant/-ent, -ity, -ment, -tion or start with con-, de- and pre- ...
It's not always easy to determine whether a word came directly from French or if it was taken straight from Latin, this applies especially to words that do not present any special sound and or spelling changes in French and Latin.

Languages are constantly in contact with each other.
Especially in multilingual families!

Do you have a words that you only use in your family, and that others might not use or even understand?

Multilinguals are better health practitioners!

If you have ever been in an emergency situation abroad, and experienced that a health practitioner spoke your language, you know how incredibly comforting and reassuring it is when in moments of need we feel understood and we can understand people who help us! 

Mutual understanding is adamant in those situations.

When living abroad, it is always advisable to learn the local language at least to the extent to make ourselves understood and to understand those around us!

Have you ever experienced that a health practitioner did not understand you?
How did you manage the situation?

Considering how important it is for health practitioners to understand their patients, language skills should not be considered "soft skills" anymore!

 

Multilinguals have an advantage when it comes to dealing with trauma...

Research about multilingualism in psychotherapy found that “language choice influenced the therapeutic process and its outcome in terms of discussing emotional topics, establishing and maintaining rapport with the client, and managing linguistic and cultural differences.”

"Some clients do not only have mental content* stored in different experiential levels (e.g. physical, emotional, cognitive, or spiritual) but also in different linguistic levels".

Verkerk, L., Backus, A., Faro, L., Dewaele, J.-M., & Das, E. (2021). Language Choice in Psychotherapy of Multilingual Clients. Language and Psychoanalysis, 10 (2), 4-22. https://doi.org/10.7565/landp.v10i2.5542

 

"Emotions, memories and relationships may be differentially embodied and experienced in different languages, so that interactions with multilinguals benefit from being viewed through a multilingual lens. (...) a key mediation strategy is for therapists to have metalinguistic discussions with their clients in order to identify the therapeutic implications of language choices."

Especially when talking about difficult situations, using another language can be beneficial and helpful to address the topic at a pace and from a perspective that allows the patient to address it together with the therapist in the most effective way: "Multilingual therapists were found to have increased attunement with their clients, helping them to reduce their sense of isolation."

 

Language switching in therapy can serve various functions:

  • to recall specific memories
  • to use more socially acceptable language
  • to be more precise, use words with a different connotation (to avoid ambiguity)
  • to exclude a third person from the conversation (e.g. in family therapy to exclude another family member who doesn’t understand the other language)
  • when talking about highly emotional topics, dreams, or traumas
  • to decrease the emotional load

Training about multilingualism as a means of understanding multilingual clients’ different and sometimes conflicting ‘narrative knowing’ and sense of self, should be integrated in core psychotherapy courses.

  • What language do you prefer when sharing emotions?
  • What language do you prefer when you want to create emotional distance?
  • What language does your GP, dentist, psychologist, therapist, counsellor etc. speak?
  • What language does your child speak with the pediatrician, GP, psychologist, counsellor etc.?

 

 

I quote from the following studies:

Verkerk, L., Backus, A., Faro, L., Dewaele, J.-M., & Das, E. (2021). Language Choice in Psychotherapy of Multilingual Clients. Language and Psychoanalysis, 10 (2), 4-22. https://doi.org/10.7565/landp.v10i2.5542

Bager-Charleson S., Dewaele J.-M., Costa B., Kasap Z. (2017). A multilingual outlook: Can awareness-raising about multilingualism affect therapists’ practice? A mixed-method evaluation. Language and Psychoanalysis, 6(2), 56–75.

Dewaele, J.-M., Costa, B., Rolland, L., & Cook, S. (2020). Interactions and mediation between multilingual clients and their psychotherapist. Babylonia Journal of Language Education, 3(1). https://doi.org/10.55393/BABYLONIA.V3I1.17

Mending Mind: Therapy reflections: Why do certain clients not want to talk in their native language in therapy? https://www.mendingmind.com/single-post/multilingual-therapy-reflections [6 October 2022]

 

 

Multilinguals can be literate in multiple languages

Multilinguals always have several languages that are most dominant (see: Dominant Language Constellation by Larissa Aronin).

Even if we use our languages to a high level of proficiency, we don't automatically become literate, i.e. we don't automatically start reading and writing in all our languages. Although some skills can be transferred between languages, reading requires a structured approach.
Depending on the amount of formal instruction or time we dedicate to learn how to read in each of our languages, asynchronous literacy is very common in multilinguals!

However, if we learn to read and write in several of our languages up to a high level of proficiency – and this takes many many years! – we have access to a great variety of perspectives and nuances, thoughts, concepts etc. are expressed and described.

Being able to read in multiple languages allows us to have multiple perspectives on life: 

A different language is a different vision of life (Federico Fellini)

 

And as we can not live simultaneously in all the countries where our languages are used, reading is an integral part of developing our language proficiency.

 

  • In what languages do you read – for your work, study/ies, pleasure etc.?
  • Do you prefer reading in one of more of your languages, and if so, which ones?
  • Would you like to improve your reading (and maybe writing) skills in one of your languages?
  • Is the first language you acquired and learned, the one you still prefer reading and writing in?

 

 

Recommended readings:

Aronin, Larissa (2021) Dominant Language Constellations in Education: Patterns and Visualisations. In Larissa Aronin and Eva Vetter (eds.) Dominant Language Constellations Approach in Education and Language Acquisition (pp. 19-41). Springer.

Larissa Aronin

Little, Sabine (2021) Rivers of multilingual reading: exploring biliteracy experiences among 8-13-year old heritage language readers, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, DOI: 10.1080/01434632.2021.1882472

 

 

Multilinguals have the ability to gain a deeper understanding of several cultures

Not every multilingual is multicultural!

Knowing another language, even up to a high level of proficiency, doesn't automatically mean that one is multicultural or has a deep(er) understanding of the respective cultures!

 

 

 

 

Multilinguals have a health benefit of connecting languages

When we use multiple languages we gain a deeper understanding of each of them. We discover similarities, differences, the many ways thoughts and concepts are expressed.

We build our very own network of connections between our languages (Ute Limacher-Riebold 2022)

I like to compare this with the nervous system and neurons: The more we improve and foster our languages, the more the "pathways" and connections between them are consolidated and myelinated, so that our switching from one language and its complex and multilayered system to the other happens faster and in a more efficient way.

For my work, but also privately, I constantly foster 5 of my languages. To maintain all these languages on a high level and constantly improve my language skills, I make sure to read and write in them regularly. Being able to read scientific articles related to "multilingualism across the lifespan" (i.e. studies about language acquisition, language maintenance, second and third language acquisition and learning, morphology, phonology, semantics, psycholinguistics), "neuroscience", "intercultural communication" and anything related to "cultures" and "communication" in all these languages, allows me to access insights, understand different perspective and focus points, and gain a broader understanding of the topics.
And it allows me to offer all my services at my International Lounge in DeutschItalianoFrançaisEnglish and Nederlands.

 

  • How do you keep your different languages "alive"?
  • How do you foster your multilingual language skills?
  • In how many of your languages do you read and write regularly?
  • What languages do you use for work?

 

 

Multilinguals have cognitive benefits


Studies have shown that multilinguals tend to have enhanced cognitive abilities, including better problem-solving skills, visual-spatial skills, multitasking abilities, and improved memory. This cognitive flexibility is attributed to the constant need and ability of bilinguals to switch between languages, and think in different linguistic structures.

The use of several languages has also been linked to a delayed onset of cognitive decline and a lower risk of age-related disorders like Alzheimer's disease. The constant mental exercise required to maintain several languages across the lifespan is helps to keep the brain more resilient.

Individuals who use several languages on a regular basis are proven to be better at filtering out irrelevant information and focusing on what's important due to their ability to switch between languages. This skill is particularly useful in tasks that require sustained attention.

 

 

I invite you to watch this fantastic video by BBC Ideas with Li Wei, Thomas H Bak and Antonella Sorace about why being bilingual is good for your brain.

In 5:23 minutes they sum up what research has found out in the past years. They refer to the studies by Ellen Bialystok in 2007 about the cognitive benefits, cognitive reserve (i.e. that when you train your brain with multiple languages and keep on using them, this helps keep your brain healthy throughout the years etc.) etc.

0:07 Li Wei: "learning new languages is an exercise of the mind"
1:07 Thomas H Bak about Ellen Bialystok's findings
1:28 Cognitive reserve
1:57 Why language is particularly beneficial to build cognitive reserve (Thomas H Bak)
2:14 Li Wei answers the question: "When is the best time to learn a new language?"
2:55 The study by Frédérique Liègeous about monolinguals vs early bilinguals vs later bilinguals.
3:51 Behavioural effect on bilingual children and adults (Antonella Sorace)
4:11 The impact of the emotional and the rational language(s) – for successive bilinguals (Thomas Bak)
4:40 The benefits of learning new languages for societies (Antonella Sorace) and cultures (Li Wei), for gaining different perspectives (Thomas Bak)

©BBCIdeas

https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/why-being-bilingual-is-good-for-your-brain/

Recommended readings:

Bialystok E, Craik FI, Luk G. Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2012;16(4):240–250.

Cook Vivian, Li Wei. The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Multicompetence, CUP, 2016.

Luk G, Bialystok E, Craik FI, Grady CL. Lifelong bilingualism maintains white matter integrity in older adults. Journal of Neuroscience. 2011;31(46):16808–16813.

Thierry G, Wu YJ. Brain potentials reveal unconscious translation during foreign-language comprehension. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2007;104(30):12530–12535.

Viorica, Marian, Shook, Anthony, The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual, Cerebrum, 2012 Sep-Oct: 13.

 

 

Multilinguals have cultural benefits

 

Knowing two or more languages enhances intercultural understanding and often goes hand-in-hand with gaining a deeper understanding of the associated cultures. Bilingual individuals are more likely to appreciate and embrace different customs, traditions, and perspectives, fostering cross-cultural empathy and understanding.

 

"The more languages we know, the more worlds we can explore" (Ute Limacher-Riebold PhD)

 

Through our multiple languages we can access a broader world of literature, music, films, and other forms of media. We can explore the multiple facets of the different cultures, which enriches our life and broadens our worldview.

Each language comes with her own verbal and non-verbal communication style. The more languages we know, the greater our advantage when it comes to communicating with people from different backgrounds. With knowing several languages we have a broad set of tools that enhances our intercultural communication. Being able to "read the room" (or "the air") is an invaluable skill in today's interconnected society and can lead to enhanced personal and professional opportunities.

 

 

Recommended readings:

Yinjie Chen, Amado M.Padilla, Role of Bilingualism and Biculturalism as Assets in Positive Psychology: Conceptual Dynamic GEAR Model, Front Psychol. 2019, 10, 2122.

Beacco Jean-Claude, Specifying languages' contribution to intercultural education. Lessons learned from the CEFR, 2013.

 

Multilinguals have career benefits 

Knowing multiple languages can open doors to educational opportunities abroad. Many universities offer programs in multiple languages, and scholarships and exchange programs often favour bilingual candidates.

Furthermore, knowing several languages is a highly sought-after skill in many industries. Companies value employees who can communicate with international clients and colleagues, navigate global markets, and bridge cultural gaps. The more languages we know, the bigger our competitive edge in the job market.

The more languages we know, the more we feel that we belong to diverse groups. Our languages can serve as bridge to other peoples and cultures, and are like a gateway to a global citizenship as they enable us to participate actively in international discussions, engage in diplomacy, and contribute to global problem-solving efforts.

 

 

Recommended readings:

OECD – How Language Learning Opens Doors, accessed 13 September 2023, < https://www.oecd.org/pisa/foreign-language/opens-doors.pdf>

COE – Language Policies, accessed 13 September 2023, < https://www.coe.int/fi/web/commissioner/-/language-policies-should-accomodate-diversity-protect-minority-rights-and-defuse-tensions>

 

 

Multilingual children can be better communicators

 

 

 

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