Humans and Health

The Surprising Ways Speaking Multiple Languages Shapes Our Lives 

Katie Sullivan

Psycholinguists have discovered that individuals who are capable of speaking two languages or more are typically much better at switching focuses. Subsequently, they are much better at selecting information and focusing on relevant topics. This can often give bilingual individuals the upper hand in terms of real-life situations, making them typically more competent in a large range of tasks. 90% of employers say that they rely on their workforce to have language skills other than English.  Katie explores the benefits of being able to speak multiple languages and how this ability changes unexpected areas of our lives…

A second language, commonly referred to as an L2, is most easily acquired at a young age, and in recent years we are seeing more and more cases in which parents who have at least two languages between them, will speak to their child exclusively in different languages from each other, encouraging the child to respond in that language to that parent – the OPOL Method, One Parent One Language. A great example of the OPOL Method is documented on TikTok by @mybeautifulblunder, where she speaks to her daughter exclusively in Spanish whereas her husband exclusively speaks English. Their daughter demonstrates how she is capable of code-switching very quickly dependent on who she is speaking to, at just 2 years old.  

Does the fact I can hold a basic conversation and ask useful questions in French make me bilingual?

There is evidence to prove that second languages can be acquired later in life, and it is becoming more common with the rise of easily accessible apps like Duolingo. However, the chances of reaching native-like proficiency after the age of 13 are slim. The critical period of language acquisition begins at the age of 2 and runs until an individual reaches puberty – typically around 13 years old, in this period children should be exposed to as much language as possible to offer them the best chances of having a well-developed vocabulary. Helping teach your child to have a well-developed vocabulary allows them to have more freedom in socialisation.  

Who exactly classifies as bilingual? It is not something that can be easily operationalised. Does the fact I can hold a basic conversation and ask useful questions in French make me bilingual? In my opinion, no. In yours? Maybe. If an individual is able to demonstrate sociolinguistic competence, and by this I mean able to interact with society on a basic surface level, does that mean they share the gift of mental flexibility that so many bi- and multilingual individuals have proved to have? This is where the line is blurred. 

bilingual students tend to excel in multiple subjects at school

Mental flexibility is a term used to describe the phenomenon in which individuals who speak more than one language have proved they are better at switching focus to different tasks – for example, they tend to excel in school settings where they are moving from subject to subject through the day, and thus be more productive. There is scientific evidence to prove that the heightened stimulation of the brain during the process of learning two languages leads to increased neuroplasticity and, in the long run, protects against cognitive decline. Studies have shown that in the event of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, the brains of bilinguals decline a lot slower in comparison to those who are monolingual, as they possess enriched cognitive control.  

the discovery of heightened neuroplasticity in bilingual individuals was groundbreaking

This aspect of the physical development of the brains of bilinguals explains why they are able to switch focus with such ease. Studies have shown that early bilinguals show rapid development of the left inferior frontal cortex which is responsible for their executive functions. Executive functions are the set of skills responsible for the ability to ‘plan ahead and meet goals, display self-control, follow multi-step directions even when interrupted and stay focused despite distractions amongst others.’, explaining why bilingual students tend to excel in multiple subjects at school. This asset can be easily applied to everyday adult life and definitely university student life where young adults often struggle to find a good balance for focus of work and socialising. In addition, knowledge like this could be extremely valuable to employers, as an attractive asset for job candidates. People who speak more than one language earn 5-20% more than individuals who don’t. 

In earlier research, there was a lot of concern expressed for bilingual children, particularly those in the above-mentioned ‘critical period’, with the suggestion that learning two languages would be too overwhelming for the developing brain and pull focus from other important aspects of development, such as neurofunction and physical development. With large advances in research technology, like fMRIs and EEGs, the discovery of heightened neuroplasticity in bilingual individuals was groundbreaking for proving this wrong and understanding both L1 (native tongue) and L2 acquisition.  

The expanding knowledge of language acquisition and how it impacts actual brain structure is also beneficial in allowing for deeper research on various learning disabilities and neurodevelopmental disorders, leading to better-developed treatments for them.  

For more information and real-life examples, check out Erin Bulcao’s instagram, where she captures her experiences with raising bilingual children; here.

Katie Sullivan

Featured image courtesy of Aedrian via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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