Can Bilingualism Make You More Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise?

- Benefits of Bilingualism -

Learning a second language provides many benefits. Some study a second language for the intellectual stimulation, while others have a legitimate need (such as travel) that requires it. But the benefits of learning a new language often reach much farther than simply gratifying any one specific need.  Rest assured that the hard work and diligence you invest over the course of your language learning experience will be rewarded throughout your life in many, many ways. Here are just a few, based in research and my own personal experience with language study.

Research Shows…

…that bilingualism has several benefits. A research study conducted by Mehisto and Marsh (2010) noted several. The first, and perhaps most interesting, were the economic benefits associated with bilingualism. The ability to reach out to others who struggle with the local language is a huge advantage to employers, which often motivates them to pay better wages for bilingual employees. Mehisto and Marsh contend that “bilingualism holds the promise of increased income for the individual” (p. 22). They further contend that “there is already considerable information available which indicates that bilingualism holds substantial economic potential for the individual and societies at large, and that monolingualism may lead to significant lost economic opportunities for individuals and societies” (p. 29). But the economic benefits are only the beginning.

 

These same authors, relying on their own and other research, also describe “the bilingual as having increased competence” (p. 31). Apparently this is the result of a bilingual’s ability to draw from more than one language to decode messages. They are also more adept at identifying “ambiguity in communication as they seek precision in the meaning of not just words, but of underlying concepts” (p. 35). This would suggest superior comprehension of those speaking more than one language. But it doesn’t stop there.

The third claim made by Mehisto and Marsh is that there is “the possibility that knowledge of more Brainthan one language slows down mental decline as a person ages” (p. 37). Specifically, after controlling for demographics such as gender, education, and employment, dementia was delayed by almost 4 full years among those having learned a second language. The health benefits, including decreased health costs, are remarkable among bilinguals.

…so let me get this straight. Those speaking a second language are richer, smarter, and healthier than those who don’t? Why hasn’t everyone learned a second language?

My Own Experience

While I’m not yet rubbing shoulders with the likes of Warren Buffet or Stephen Hawking, I can say that having learned several languages has greatly improved my quality of life. My own personal story can attest to the research noted above. During my first year at college, I was probably about as likely to succeed as your average barely-made-it-in-to-higher-education Freshman. I passed my classes, scored a 2.6 GPA, and congratulated myself for not flunking out.

It was after this that I spent two years in Paraguay doing humanitarian work as a Paraguaymissionary. That’s where I became fluent in Spanish and a local Indian dialect known as Guarani. I also studied Portuguese while living on the border of Brazil for 10 months. Now, obviously two years in a foreign country without mommy and daddy will make anyone grow up – but the academic benefits of having learned those languages was unmistakable. During my first semester back at college I managed a 3.955 GPA while taking a 20-credit semester load. I’ll also say that learning languages permanently changed the way my brain worked, causing me to think more critically about complex issues. This was crucial to helping me during my first masters degree, where my overall GPA was 3.92.

I can also say that learning languages has played a role in providing financial benefits. The ability to think more critically, as well as speak with minority customers and associates, has directly added to my value as an employee on multiple occasions. I’ve worked better shift times, been paid more, and been selected as a key employee where language help was needed. When running my own side businesses, it’s also helped to drum up customers through referrals, directly contributing to my bottom line. It seems that when minority members find someone who can provide a service they need and speaks their language, they are eager to pass along the message among their inner circle and bring business where they can communicate. That only makes sense.

While I’m note quite old enough to speak directly about delays in mental decline, I can say that 2 out of 3 aint bad. And if the research is accurate here as well, I’m very much looking forward to old age.

 

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