The Bilingual Advantage

There are conflicting views and evidence about the bilingual advantage, but it does seem clear speaking more than one language forces the brain to work harder and differently. Plus you may able to impress a date by ordering dinner in French.

There are conflicting views and evidence about the bilingual advantage, but it does seem clear speaking more than one language forces the brain to work harder and differently. Plus you may able to impress a date by ordering dinner in French.

Speaking more than one language may not confuse children, as some predicted, but instead it may improve selective attention and cognitive flexibility. Down the line, the bilingual advantage could help adults ignore distractive information, land better jobs and even forestall brain deterioration in old age.

Anything that sounds that good, of course, may not pan out. Skeptics question whether immersing children in two or more languages produces any long-term advantages.

Despite contradictory perspectives and even clashing scientific studies, there does seem to be some consensus. Bilingual speakers have more active brains. Switching from language to language forces the brain to work harder and differently, much like lifting weights trains muscles.

Advocates of the bilingual advantage note humans natively pick up language from the time they are born until puberty. Young minds are sponges that absorb new words and phrases effortlessly. Multi-tasking minds become sharper and more attentive to detail. Multiple languages also appear to help children see the world in more than one perspective, which improves their odds of being more sensitive to variations later in life.

In Europe, bilingualism is almost unavoidable. In America, it has faced resistance, even antagonism. Newcomers have been told by certain political voices to learn to speak “American,” even though Americans generally speak English. (Nerd alert: The so-called Appalachian dialect may actually derive from Elizabethan English adapted to fit the American frontier.)

Many people who study a foreign language, especially one of the Romance languages, come away with a stronger understanding of English. When you learn Spanish syntax, the lights go on about English syntax, which shares a Latin linguistic ancestry. Language isn’t just something you utter; it is something you begin to understand.

That advantage has been multiplied by research findings from linguists and psychologists, which suggests there are considerable benefits to bilingualism.

Bilingual speakers are constantly toggling between two languages to express themselves. Rather than tongue-tie them, this phenomenon challenges the brain and tunes up its unfathomable capacity. It expands memory, sharpens the ability to differentiate, and it builds high-level thought processes such as “executive function."

Doubters have their proof that single and multi-language speakers perform at basically the same levels. It may be cooler and more romantic to order dinner at a French restaurant in French, but it has little influence on how well your brain functions. 

This is not a debate likely to end soon, similar to whether drinking coffee is good or bad for your health. One potential conclusion is that the bilingual advantage isn’t universal. The advantage may exist, just not for everyone. Or as the French would say, “c’est la vie.”