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6 Benefits of being bilingual/ trilingual/ multilingual

I’ve met plenty of parents who speak multiple languages themselves but just “can’t be bothered” to raise their kids to be bilingual/ multilingual, because it’s, well, hard work! But if they really knew the enormous benefits being bilingual / multilingual could bring, they might change their mind. In this article I’ve summarised some of the key potential benefits of being fluent in more than one language. Maybe, just maybe, I could convert you too? Or maybe you don’t need to be “converted” and you just need a motivational boost to start your own bilingual/ multilingual parenting journey. Either way, please read on!

1. To communicate with family members/ extended family and friends

For many parents, this may be the number one reason for wanting to raise their kids to be bilingual. While you and your partner probably speak English (or whichever majority language applicable to your family) very well, you might have relatives back home who don’t speak English and wouldn’t it be a real shame if your kids couldn’t talk to their own grandparents or cousins?

My mother told me about a Chinese friend of hers who’s lived in the UK for more than 20 years but speaks very little English. Somehow, she never taught her daughter to speak Chinese either. She just muddled along using very basic English for two decades. But a few years ago my mum’s friend got really ill and needed her daughter’s help with hospital visits and other tasks. She had to actually use a dictionary to communicate with her own daughter about her condition, and this is when the realisation really hit her – that she really should have passed on her language to her child. A Vietnamese-Australian friend of mine also laments the fact that he can’t discuss anything more profound than what’s for dinner with his own parents, due to the language barrier.

These are obviously extreme examples but they really serve to highlight a very basic point - there’s no better reason to learn a language than to be able to speak to a loved one, and to connect to your heritage, which brings us to the next point.

2. To connect to your heritage and cultural identity

We live in a world that increasingly celebrates diversity and embraces the richness of all cultures. However, the flip side is that children who have a heritage – or even two or more heritages – that’s different from the dominant culture can sometimes struggle to find their own identity. I’ve read countless interviews where people who come from “immigrant” backgrounds have expressed this sentiment, but one that I’ve read recently really resonated with me. I stumbled upon this article while reading up on the Backstreet Boys (as you do!); it’s a really interesting read if you’d like to look at a real-life example of how mixed-heritage children can struggle with their identities.

Howie Dorough, one of the five members of the famous boy band, was born to a Puerto Rican mother and an Irish-American father. In the interview, he said that there were times that he’d be in situations around other Puerto Ricans or Hispanics and they’d start speaking in Spanish, and he’d be looking at them going “No halo español!” “As I started getting older, I definitely felt challenged with finding my identity,” said Dorough. His inability to speak Spanish also had a huge impact on his career: “I realized I was limited by not being able to embrace that side of me, especially in the entertainment world.” But in his later years he took Spanish classes and achieved a good level of fluency. “It’s not the best Spanish – it’s all the present tense […] but I’ve been able to embrace it now and feel more secure with my culture.”

Being a mother of two mixed-heritage kids, I am acutely aware of how language interacts with identity. My husband and I hope to give our children the best chance of learning Chinese and Russian well enough to connect to their parental heritages, if they should wish. The way I see it is that the parents should empower their children with these tools, but it’s up to them what they want to do with them.

3. To learn about another culture

This point is closely linked with point two. Just as language is indispensable for connecting to one’s heritage, there’s no denying that a people’s culture is also inextricably linked to its language. Say you want to experience Chinese culture – sure, you can take a ride to Chinatown, browse some Chinese grocery stores and top it off with a delicious dimsum lunch. But if you have no idea what the Chinese people around you are saying, no idea what the Chinese writing on the menu says, then in essence, it’s only a “Disneyland” cultural experience. If you want to know a culture in any depth, you really need to get to grips with the language that’s associated with that culture and/or people.

In our increasingly multicultural world, being fluent in more than one language is such a valuable asset as it helps you navigate other cultures and connect to so many more people (in the case of Chinese, it’s literally a billion more people!). Quite apart from any practical benefits, being bilingual or multilingual is simply an enriching experience in its own right. If you could give them the gift of language from a young age that will enable them to unlock this wonderful wealth of experience over a lifetime, why would you not do it?

4. To broaden children’s horizons

It has often been observed that being bilingual or multilingual seems to make people more open-minded. Learning a language has a way of opening the mind up to different perspectives and ways of looking at the world, making a person more open-minded and receptive to the views of others. I’m sure this is a quality that most parents would love their child to have.

We were lucky to live in a very multicultural, cosmopolitan part of London. We now live in Hertfordshire just outside London, but we still have lots of friends from all over the world, many of whom are raising their children to be bilingual or trilingual too. Because my kids now speak Chinese and Russian, in addition to English, they are very aware of the existence of other languages and cultures. We’d often look at a world map together and talk about our friends and extended families – “Look, this is Colombia, where Eva’s daddy is from”; “Do you remember which of your friends is from Mongolia?” One of my fondest memories of the apartment block where we used to live in West Hampstead, was when my neighbours’ children and my kids were looking at a tree together in the communal garden, and I asked each of them how to say “leaf” in their family’s language. “Feuille!” (French)! “Hoja!” (Spanish) “Shuye!” (Chinese) – came the chorus of reply, from this wonderful group of little polyglots!

Of course, you could still help your children develop cultural awareness as a monolingual family; in no way am I suggesting that monolingual people are inherently less culturally aware or more narrow-minded. But there is no denying that speaking more than one language does help people see things from a different perspective, which can only be a good thing.

5. To give your kid’s brain a boost (it’s scientifically proven, and it’s free!)

In this day and age, there always seems to be a new product that promises to elevate your child to the status of baby Einstein. I once read about a mum who “trained” her newborn baby (as in, literally, one-day-old) with phonics flashcards, in the hope of giving the baby a head start in the race that is modern life.

Now, I’m not saying that being bilingual will make your child a genius, or even more intelligent – if that was the case, all kids from, say Malaysia (or any other country where multilingualism is actually the norm), would be busy making space shuttles or inventing the latest cancer cure. It’s actually really important to remember that around the world, more than half of the world’s populationbetween 60 and 75% according to studies cited by the BBC – speak more than one language. This is both humbling and liberating; humbling because so many people around the world can effortlessly accomplish something that can seem so unachievable to monolinguals’ minds, and liberating because if so many people around the world can do it naturally, it’s actually not such a big deal, and there’s absolutely no reason why your child, or in fact any other average human being, cannot do it! In the Anglophone world, bilingualism/ multilingualism is so often placed on a pedestal but really, it’s time to tear it down from that pedestal and bring it back down to earth. We need to demystify bilingualism/ multilingualism, and re-establish it as something that’s actually very normal.

Nevertheless, there is solid scientific evidence which shows that knowing more than one language is beneficial for cognitive and executive functions of the brain, as bilinguals and multilingual have to constantly juggle two or more systems in their heads. According to cognitive neuropsychologist Jubin Abutalebi, it is possible to distinguish bilingual people from monolinguals simply by looking at scans of their brains, as bilinguals have significantly more grey matter than monolinguals in their anterior cingulate cortex, because they are using it so much more often. I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty staggering – that being bilingual/ multilingual actually alters your brain structure in an objectively measureable way!

In recent years the effect of bilingualism on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease has also come to the forefront of public consciousness. While being bilingual doesn’t prevent people from getting dementia, it is known to delay its effect by an average of five years. If a medicine could delay the onset of dementia by five years, thereby massively improving people’s quality of life in those five years, how much do you think people would be willing to pay for it?

And you could give your child this gift for free. When you look at it this way, isn’t it a bit crazy not to raise your child with more than one language if you’re able to?

6. Give your child’s future career prospects a boost

This benefit is pretty self-explanatory. I could be slightly biased, since my work as a translator and language tutor literally revolves around languages, but various recent surveys show that being multilingual can improve one’s earning potential by anything from 3% to as much as 15%, by some estimates. Bilingual and multilingual candidates are also more likely to be hired in the first place.

Does this surprise anyone? Say you were an employer, and there were two potential candidates going for the same job. All things being equal, would you not favour the candidate who speaks three languages, as opposed to just one? And in our increasingly inter-connected world, fluency in more than one language will become an even more valuable asset.

It is true that artificial intelligence will drastically improve the efficacy and accuracy of translation software such as Google Translate, to the point where many sceptics already question the value and purpose of learning another language – what’s the point if a computer can do the translation for you instantaneously, even in face-to-face interactions with a real person, as envisaged by some?

But in reality, we are probably still a long way off from that. For 99.99% of our existence as a species, we Homo Sapiens have evolved to interact face-to-face, using natural language. Such deeply hard-wired instincts and preferences will not be so easily displaced by technology. As long as we’re still flesh-and-blood human beings, the ability to converse naturally in another language will likely continue to be an extremely valuable skill.

Many parents would make huge sacrifices to give their children an expensive education, in the hope that it will give them a head start in life. So if you could give your child’s future career prospects a boost by raising them to speak more than one language, and do so for free, is there any reason not to do it?

I hope this article has given you some food for thought and a motivational boost for your linguistic journey. You’re in it for the long haul so on those days when you want to throw that workbook out the window, when you feel like giving up, when you’d rather watch funny cat videos on Youtube for 15 minutes than sit through another homework session with your child – remember that those efforts are so, so worth it. And be assured that when your child grows up, they will be grateful for the wonderful gift of language you’ve worked so hard to bestow on them.


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