Over half the world’s population is bilingual.
Estimates suggest anywhere between 60 and 75 percent of people speak at least two languages.
That’s a stat that can seem pretty mind-blowing for someone like me who has spoken only one their entire life.
An extra language is far from just a communication tool.
The research suggests they’re gaining a whole host of social, psychological, lifestyle, and cognitive benefits from it.
That’s why, people who grew up bilingual enjoy some enviable characteristics.
1) They are better problem solvers and thinkers thanks to enhanced cognitive skills
Our minds are like putty. Rather than being fixed, we are constantly molding them.
And bilingual people have become experts at this.
They are always shifting their flexible minds from one mode to another. And that gives them incredible executive functions.
We’re talking about things like:
- Thinking skills
- Decision making
When you learn and flip between two languages regularly, you are constantly calling upon these skills.
So it stands to reason that they are far stronger in bilingual people, who rely upon them daily.
It’s also why, they have super-charged brains.
2) They are good learners
Perhaps all that boosted brain power makes bilingual people smarter in certain aspects.
Because the research points to bilingual children having the edge in the classroom compared to kids who only speak one language.
One experiment done in 1962 highlighted that they did better in both verbal and non-verbal intelligence tests.
These academic advantages are thought to come from the ability to develop more flexible thinking, as we highlighted above.
The most recent studies show that bilingual people are better at blocking out irrelevant information. Which all aids learning.
When you already know more than one language, it’s also easier to learn new ones too.
3) They’re more successful
You don’t have to dig very far to figure out why being bilingual can make you more successful, and even richer.
As we’ve just seen, bilingual children often get a head start, doing better at school and performing better in tasks.
Then there are all those boosts to their cognitive skills that we have already identified. And of course, having a second language is also a useful practical tool in today’s jobs market.
Perhaps that is why bilingual people can earn anything from 5%-20% more per hour.
In fact, the financial benefits of knowing a second language have been estimated as being equivalent to $128,000 over 40 years.
In a world that is only becoming more global, that’s a figure that is likely to keep on growing.
4) They have greater empathy
Up until now, we’ve largely focused on the cognitive advantages that can come with bilingualism.
But there are plenty of social ones too.
One of which is better empathy and sensitivity. Particularly towards different people and other backgrounds.
Strong empathy skills have been shown to:
- Help you build better relationships
- Promote altruistic behaviors
- Help you understand other people
- Help you regulate your own feelings
So why are bilingual people better at putting themselves in others’ shoes?
Remember earlier we said they were good at shutting out certain information, and that helps them to learn?
Well, it’s thought that they are more skilled in blocking out their own feelings and beliefs too in order to concentrate more on someone else’s.
One review that took a look at all the research available on this found that having more than one language improved your ability to predict, tap into, and understand others’ mental states.
Perhaps it comes down to being trained to see the world from more than one viewpoint, as we’ll see next.
5) They’re more open-minded
Filtering the world through two different languages provides different ways of seeing that world.
Bilingual people can have a more diverse mindset and even adapt themselves depending on which language they are speaking.
Research has pointed to the fact that we can have very different personalities depending on which language we use at any given time.
Perhaps it’s a matter of letting different sides of yourself shine. But studies have noted this “split personality” phenomenon quite clearly.
An experiment in the 1960s found that Japanese-English bilingual women would finish the same sentence very differently depending on which language they were speaking.
When answering in Japanese the sentence: “When my wishes conflict with my family…” was finished as “it is a time of great unhappiness”. But in English, they answered, “I do what I want”.
Similarly, “Real friends should…” was completed as “help each other” when speaking Japanese and “be frank” when speaking in English.
It’s almost as though bilingual people are capable of having two separate mindsets.
6) They are more tolerant
Being bilingual broadens your horizons.
Perhaps you travel more. Maybe you get a better grasp of different cultures.
Either way, as we’ve already established, you are able to see things from a more varied perspective.
It stands to reason that being more open and understanding of others also makes you more tolerant.
Cross-cultural understanding is bound to lead to greater acceptance and patience when it comes to handling our differences.
7) They are more attractive
I doubt you’ll find many people who would disagree:
Speaking more than one language is sexy.
One survey found that 75% of people think it’s attractive when someone speaks more than one language.
In fact, a whopping 96% of people said it was more attractive than having a six-pack or an athletic body.
The perfect excuse to ditch the gym in favor of Duolingo!
So, it’s clearly hot when someone speaks another language.
Quite rightly when you consider that it’s a testament to extra brain power and greater social awareness.
But people who score more highly when it comes to empathy are often:
- Better conversationalists
- Better at reading a room
- More popular
Basically, a bilingual person’s knowledge that others’ beliefs, desires, intentions, emotions, and thoughts may be different from their own makes them more likable.
8) They’re mentally fitter and age better because of it
Yes, that’s right, being bilingual even impacts your overall health.
Studies have found some potentially surprising benefits including:
- Delays in dementia
- Protection after a brain injury
Okay, so let’s break those down a little.
The thinking is that bilinguals have extra grey matter and more neural pathways. And they can put these to good use when they need it.
It’s a sort of cognitive reserve that the rest of us don’t have. When their brain has problems, they can fall back on this.
Recent research concluded that bilinguals were able to slow down brain degradation.
They showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s some four to five years after monolinguals with the same disease pathology.
Meanwhile, another study of 600 stroke survivors found that cognitive recovery was twice as likely for bilinguals as for monolinguals.
That’s why it’s believed speaking two languages fluently helps to keep us mentally fit and healthy.
9) They are creative
Sometimes we misunderstand creativity.
We think it has to mean you’re good at drawing, music, writing, or dancing. Something that we consider to be a “creative” art form.
But it’s far more fundamental than that.
It’s about coming up with new ideas.
It is simply about inventiveness, and that can be applied to all sorts of areas of life.
Our capacity for creativity rests on how well our brain puts together seemingly unrelated pieces.
When you are bilingual you have more of these pieces to put together.
That’s why bilingual people have been shown to perform better on plenty of creativity and divergent thinking tasks.
Their brains are better hard-wired to make new connections.
To conclude: Why is it important to speak more than one language?
Growing up with another language doesn’t just give you access to a different vocabulary.
It opens you up to a whole new world.
You see things differently, you understand things (and other people) differently, and it wires your entire brain differently.
As it does so, it offers you extra sensitivity and skillsets which can give you an advantage in life.