Multilingualism on the mind

Illustration of web services used to translate languages. Image by mohamed_hassan (CC BY 2.0)


As the world becomes more globally interconnected and trade patterns complexify, the importance of multilingualism is increasing tremendously. Around the world, more than half of the global population – estimates vary from 60-75% [1] – are at a minimum bilingual, with many countries having more than one official national language. Over the years, studies have shown that multilingualism has a plethora of social, psychological and lifestyle benefits. So, to be monolingual, as many native English speakers are, is to be in the minority and perhaps to be missing out.

Being able to speak multiple languages is more than simply a social skill, but rather an effective way of promoting long-term brain health. Just as going to the gym or doing physical exercise showers a variety of positive effects on the body’s health, the brain is also a muscle that requires training in order to function at its full potential. Emerging scientific evidence by behavioural neurologists is currently proving that bi- and multilingualism can lead to faster stroke recovery, as well as delay the onset of dementia or even prevent it altogether. Although the mechanisms of this process are still unknown, it is suggested that the human brain has evolved to be multilingual and that a cognitive reserve is involved, a concept that has been linked with factors such as higher levels of education, occupational status, social networks, and physical exercise[2].

Additionally, multilingualism improves working memory as the brain is forced to store double the amount of information and vocabulary, meaning that its capacity to remember things on a short-term basis is augmented. Regularly communicating in more than one language is said to also boost mental health, offer cognitive benefits in everyday life and increase the ability to respect and empathise. Consequently, it can aid in resolving conflicts, multitasking and understanding the perspectives of others[3].

In a world that is losing languages faster than ever before – at the approximate rate of around one a fortnight, half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of the century[4]. With the long-term advantages of bilingualism being proven, it’s still disappointing to witness a lack of development in teaching second languages to children at a young age across the UK. Maybe the researchers and critics of native English speakers are correct: monolinguals are excluding themselves from potentially life-changing benefits.

Edited by Liam Butler







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