Between globalization, social media and trade, the world is becoming increasingly interconnected. However, language is still the most prevalent barrier around the globe.
Americans are becoming more linguistically diverse as time goes on. In 1980, only 11 percent of the United States population was bilingual. In 2007 (the latest data available), 18 percent of people spoke another language other than English. However, that left a significant part of the population speaking only one language. This was a travesty, since 82 percent were missing out on such a valuable experience.
Being multilingual comes with a host of financial, cognitive and personal benefits.
It is a well-known fact that when faced with two candidates, employers will almost always pick the one who can communicate with a larger population. In addition to increasing professional opportunities, a study conducted by the University of Chicago showed bilingualism can also influence your decision-making skills in the workplace. Working in a language other than your native one affects biases while making choices, meaning bilingual employees are more impartial. Furthermore, it is estimated that speaking another language adds up to $128,000 to your paycheck over a 40-year span.
Speaking another language also positively affects your cognitive function. Studies show that those who speak more than one language have more gray matter in the part of the frontal lobe called the left inferior parietal cortex. Short-term effects of this include an increase in cognitive skills, including greater inhibitory control and attention.
On the cognitive front, bilingualism is also linked to a smaller risk of dementia. For patients who spoke two or more languages, the extent of their ailment was delayed five to seven years compared to their monolingual counterparts.
Bilingualism also affects a person’s feelings toward others. A study by the University of Chicago showed that children who speak more than one language are more empathetic than their monolingual peers, choosing to scope out the situation prior to deciding which language to use.
Speakers of two languages also reap the benefits of their skills in their social life. There are 41 million native Spanish speakers currently living in the US. That’s another 41 million people you could communicate with on a personal level just within our country. This does not include the millions of other people inhabiting 22 countries where Spanish is the official language. As a result, bilingualism also increases the number of places one can travel. Instead of spending time fumbling to find English travel books and guides, travelers can immerse themselves in the culture and relate to the people they meet.
As a native Spanish speaker, I personally experience the effects of knowing two languages in my daily life. During my childhood, at home I was spoken to in Spanish and only Spanish. I did not learn English until I began school. As a result, I learned how to compartmentalize not only languages, but tasks and even entire cultures. I can relate to my Colombian family and friends and my American peers in the same breath. It has broadened my horizons, enabled me to learn other languages more easily and allowed me to explore other cultures with less barriers.
Learning to speak another language is an investment. It opens doors professionally and socially, in addition to improving long-term cognitive health. Anyone can learn a new language; while it is true that it is more difficult with age, it is possible to learn another language on the internet (using entities like Duolingo and Babbel), immersion or even watching “Dora the Explorer.”
The benefits of speaking a foreign language are obvious; the cognitive, social and financial benefits should be enough to persuade any American to learn another language and be able to compete in this everchanging world.