Your brain wants you to master a second language

Paula Martin

The truth is, being bilingual or multilingual can only be a good thing. There are benefits of speaking more than one language beyond the fact that doing so makes it is easier to travel. Multilingual versus monolingual brains have certain differences. As expressed in the TEDEd video by Mia Nacamulli called “The Benefits of a Bilingual Brain,” it has been proven that adults who speak more than one language confront problems well and exhibit less emotional bias. 

When gaining the ability to speak, read, write and listen in a different language, our brains become more flexible cognitive-wise, as if it were a workout. In fact, as mentioned by Nacamulli, the “workout” our brains execute when developing or practicing multilingual fluency can delay our chances of having Alzheimer’s or dementia by as much as five years. 

However, according to Nacamulli, in the 1960s, a child who was bilingual would be considered “handicapped” since the development of two languages at the same time seemed to delay the process of truly strengthening either of the two. Furthermore, in the U.S., there has never been enough emphasis on bilingual education. While English is the most learned and taught language worldwide, Spanish is the one natively spoken in the largest number of countries, and Chinese is spoken by the most individuals in the world (due to China’s enormous population numbers alone). While every non-English-speaking country enforces the teaching of English as a second language since elementary school, many countries even enforce a third language as well, such as French or German, starting in middle school.

Therefore, it is crucial to realize that while most Americans have the advantage of speaking the language that everyone outside the U.S. is trying to master, we must not sit back and relax as though it isn’t necessary for our children to learn a second language. The cognitive “workout,” vocabulary expansion and perspective changes that multilingualism has been proven to bring to our brains are not factors to ignore. In fact, according to Viorica Marian, professor at Northwestern University, “Research has shown that the bilingual brain can have better attention and task-switching capacities than the monolingual brain.” If that does not sound like a benefit for the number of children who need more focus development and attention-span increases, I do not know what would. 

Even without speaking of children, we are living in a time in which competitiveness arises between students, graduates and employees trying to get a job position or a spot in Academia. An applicant’s ability to speak another language can highly influence an employer’s decision. In fact, the financial returns of learning a foreign language vary by language and job, but they can add up to a lot. found that jobs with pay differentials based on bilingualism usually pay five to 20 percent more per hour for bilingual employees. 

The importance given to language learning at a university level in the U.S. is minimal. According to Amelia Friedman in the article “America’s Lacking Language Skills” on The Atlantic, “only seven percent of college students in America are enrolled in a language course.” However, while that percentage is low, I am a firm believer that it is not enough to take a couple courses to learn a language. Language learners must read books or travel to a place where the language is the mother tongue. They have to put themselves in situations where they need the target language to survive so that they begin to think and even dream in that language. That is when our brains get that cognitive flexibility, that workout that tones our thinking.