Language Means Opportunity: The Benefits of Bilingualism
This week we celebrate the European Day of Languages. Taking place on 26 September, it is a Council of Europe initiative that has been celebrated every year since 2001 and a day that promotes cultural diversity, awareness of the importance of language learning and protecting linguistic heritage. To mark the day, I wanted to share my own experiences of bilingualism and explore the very real benefits of being bilingual.
What does it mean to be bilingual?
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher
At least 50% of the world population is bilingual, which makes the European Day of Languages even more important to celebrate. My journey with bilingualism started in 2019 when we began preparing for the arrival of my son. Raised and educated in Poland, now living in the UK, I couldn’t separate myself from thoughts, questions, and doubts—should my children be exposed to two entirely different languages? Would that be beneficial? Should they become “third-culture kids” who are bilingual? (To find out more about third-culture kids, read our blog: Third-Culture Kids: Being Different Has Its Advantages!)
What does it mean to be bilingual? There is no simple answer to that question—even researchers who focus on multilingualism do not agree on one definition. Simply put, bilingualism is the ability to use two languages effectively. Personally, as an individual who is a native Polish speaker and fluent in English, I would not classify myself as a bilingual person, but some researchers would say that my language abilities meet bilingual requirements.
One popular classification refers to the time when a bilingual person acquires their second language, either “early bilingualism” or “late bilingualism.” Early bilingualism is when a person learns two languages in early childhood, either at the same time from birth (simultaneous bilingualism) or a second language is acquired later than the first, but still during early childhood (successive bilingualism). Late bilingualism is when a person has become bilingual in late childhood (over 12 years old) or in adulthood.
Whether we see ourselves part of a multilingual community or not, it is indisputable that learning a language brings a number of benefits—whether a second (or third, or fourth…) language is used at work or only during holidays—it boosts your memory, your confidence and your communication skills.
But is it worth the extra effort to become (or help your children become) bilingual?
To bi- or not to bi-
One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way
– Frank Smith, psycholinguist
In 2017, a few months after my move to the UK from Poland, I became a volunteer in a Polish Supplementary School on the weekends and suddenly found myself surrounded by bilingual children. This experience helped me understand what it is like to live with one foot in the UK and one foot in Poland and to experience the process of adjusting to life in a new cultural and linguistic environment, while staying connected to my home culture and language.
Learning a language, living in two cultures, and switching from one to the other, whether at home or school can be a challenge. And yet, the children I interacted with at the Polish Saturday School seemed happy and I knew that even if they did not see it then, they would understand later in life that speaking two languages can be truly beneficial:
- Creativity and problem solving: Research suggests that bilingual people tend to be more creative and can adopt a more flexible way of thinking.
- Better communication skills: The more languages you speak, the more people you can communicate with. Speaking two languages can also increase your awareness of cultural differences.
- Health advantages: One study indicates that bilinguals are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. The process of learning a language and using it on a daily basis may delay symptoms of dementia by approximately five years.
And so the adventure begins…
My son is now 18 months old living in a multilingual world. Even though he does not speak using full sentences yet, both his Polish-speaking parents and our English-speaking childminder agree that he already understands a lot of phrases in both languages. After all, his day is filled with Polish songs, English rhymes, Polish bedtime stories and English friends. In fact, his first few words were a mix of English and Polish!... Tata (Polish for daddy), auto (Polish for car), shoes (English for buty), yes (English for tak).
Globalisation and international relocations definitely help to increase the number of people who want or need to speak multiple languages and contribute to the multicultural diversity of our communities and organizations. Whether you start learning a second language in your adult life or you have been exposed to it since you were born, the advantages are always there. Go and grab it!
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