Learning a new language is essentially an exercise in learning how to learn.
Becoming bilingual requires your brain to develop new neural patterns and to become more interconnected. This means that there are more benefits to being bilingual than simply the ability to communicate in another language.
Keep reading to learn more about how being bilingual affects, and benefits, your brain.
What does it mean to be bilingual? Some say it means being able to speak two languages fluently; others take things further and say it means being a native speaker of two languages. Still others say that being bilingual just means being able to communicate in two different languages, even if not perfectly.
According to Professor Francois Grosjean, the truth lies somewhere in the middle: bilingual people simply know their languages to the level they need them. Some will have one language that is more dominant, some will be able to speak and understand a language but not be able to read or write it. Others may be able to understand a language but not speak it, while others have perfect fluency in two (or more!) languages.
Simply put, being bilingual means different things to different people, and there are a wide range of language proficiencies that can describe what it means to be bilingual.
The link between language and youth
It’s been well-known for decades, if not centuries, that children pick up new languages far easier than adults do. The ability of children to learn language is so pronounced that people used to believe that language was an inherited trait like hair color. In reality, however, very little about language has anything to do with genetics.
The children of American citizens learn Japanese, for example, just as easily as Japanese children do. A child’s ability to learn language isn’t genetically driven — it’s based on psychological factors and metabolism. Children learn new languages most easily between the ages of 6 months and 3 years old. Today, 21.6 percent of people in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home.
Why is this important?
Because the way that children acquire language gives us some clues as to how bilingualism affects the adult brain.
How to learn a new language like a child
As a child learns to speak a language, they go through several developmental milestones. By the time a child is 1 year old, they generally know two words plus mommy and daddy (or the equivalent). From here, language learning typically progresses as follows:
- 18 months — 10–50 words
- 2 years — 300 words
- 2.5 years — 450 words
- 3 years — 1,000 words
- 4 years — 2,000 words
- 5 years — 5,000+ words
- 17 years — 36,000–136,000 words (Note: this range is so large because it quickly becomes a murky matter to decide what does and doesn't count as a separate word. Do we count nation, nations, national, and nationalism as one word or four?)
On an interesting note, a child’s smaller vocabulary and limited understanding of the world actually make it easier for them to learn a second language. It’s not that the child’s mind is a blank slate — it’s more that the child’s mind thinks in simple, wordless systems that allow new words to be more easily attached to pre-existing ideas.
Adults can become bilingual faster by thinking in terms of "systems," too: in particular, thinking in terms of systems, then pairing those systems to words. With a bit of practice, speakers can learn to express themselves and form sentences even if their vocabulary is very small.
As a bonus, thinking in terms of high-level, generalized systems is great for the brain. It's basically the opposite of “missing the forest for the trees.”
Now that we've covered some of the background concepts, here are five of the top ways that being bilingual benefits the brain.
Bilingualism has a strong connection with creativity. Bilinguals outperform monolinguals (those who only know one language) across many different testing metrics. Lexical sophistication, a term that refers to the diversity of one’s vocabulary, is closely associated with one’s ability to think divergently.
Drawing from two different languages gives a person access to ideas from two different cultures: figures of speech, metaphors, concepts, and more. This helps facilitate broader and potentially less ethnocentric thinking
To put it simply, drawing on two different languages may allow a bilingual person to combine ideas in a way that might not occur to a monolingual person.
Having a vocabulary restricted to one language may correlate to relatively constrained thought patterns. Look at George Orwell’s novel 1984 for a sobering example of this — limiting language can also limit freedom. Controlling language can be a means to control minds.
Conversely, learning new languages offers a glimpse into the openness of new mindsets. British philosopher, logician, and mathematician Bertrand Russell said, “Language serves not only to express thoughts, but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it.”
Becoming bilingual can create a positive feedback loop that allows you to think in a more open, uninhibited, flexible way.
3. Systems thinking
The icons and iconoclasts of years past usually had one thing in common: they thought big, and then filled in the minutiae later. Uneducated individuals like Henry Ford were content to focus on a single goal — inventing the modern car engine — and letting more specialized “experts” figure out the rest.
Thinking big requires zooming out and considering things in terms of systems, not in terms of individual data points. If a person can learn to think in systems as they learn a new language, they can use this same systematic framework to reorganize their life toward what really matters to them.
4. Enhanced concentration
Studies show that adults who know two languages have better concentration and longer attention spans than those who know just one. Bilingual individuals also respond faster to new mental stimuli.
These cognitive improvements develop because switching back and forth between different languages involves something like a neural workout: You're switching between various parts of the brain. As the brain gets used to determining how to communicate in any given situation – which language should be used? If I'm not totally fluent, how can I express a certain idea with the words available to me? – it may become more alert and resourceful in general.
5. Neurological Protection
One of the best ways to protect our neurological health in the long run lies in something called neuroplasticity. This term refers to the brain’s ability to restructure and reconfigure itself in response to new stimuli. Learning a new language forces your brain to become more neuroplastic.
Speaking more than one language can change your brain’s neural patterns, and even its anatomy. When a bilingual person speaks one language, the areas of the brain responsible for the other language are also activated. These types of changes may prevent age-related mental decline enough to delay diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, and they may even enhance memory.
Yet another study, this one conducted by the Swedish Armed Forces, showed that students who intensively studied a second language had a larger hippocampus and cerebral cortex than those who did not.
One extra benefit: your business
This last benefit isn’t neurological in nature, but it’s worth mentioning: The stats clearly show that being bilingual can benefit your business and career as well as your mind.
MIT Economist Albert Saiz says bilingual employees, on average, make 5-20% more money per hour than their monolingual counterparts. Over a lifetime of work, this type of percentage really adds up — especially if you take compound interest into account.
Other statistics speak to something similar, just in a different way. Consulting firm Korn/Ferry International reports that roughly 30% of executives are bilingual. Another 20% are trilingual. In other words, only half of all executives don’t speak more than one language.
Another point that may be of interest to CEOs or CFOs is that bilingual speakers tend to be better at conflict management.
Being bilingual opens doors
Children who grew up immersed in multiple languages generally have cognitive advantages over their monolingual peers as adults. However, while becoming proficient in a second language as an adult is not easy, it’s never too late to develop new neural patterns and gain the mental, personal, and career benefits of being bilingual.
As the world of work continues to shrink the globe through remote work, transcontinental digital teams, and ubiquitous video conferencing — and as research reveals more about the mental benefits of bilingualism — there is more reason than ever to commit to learning a second language.
Being able to speak and understand multiple languages expands a person’s worldview, strengthens the mind, and removes language barriers. It creates new opportunities for personal, intellectual, and career growth. And it opens a person up to a multitude of perspectives, thoughts, and possibilities.
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