The Benefits of Being Bilingual

The Benefits of Being Bilingual

Nearly 60 million people in the United States speak more than one language. That means a growing number of children are growing up in bilingual households. Christina R. was one of them. Early on she knew she used different languages to speak with certain people in her family.

Christina’s mother was just a year old when she emigrated to the U.S. with Christina’s grandparents. “She grew up, went to school here and learned to speak English as fluently as she did Spanish,” she explains. “My father, on the other hand, finished his education in Mexico and emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 19. While my mother could speak Spanish, reading and writing in Spanish weren’t her strong suits. So my father made it his goal to teach my sister and I to speak it fluently.”

Christina’s parents used an approach many experts tell advise parents to try when teaching their kids two languages – “one parent, one language.” Christina’s mother spoke with her in English, and her father spoke to her in Spanish.

The Benefits of Being Bilingual

Learning two languages offers many benefits. The list is long, but here are a few:

  1. Faster mastery of new words and other languages
    When you speak two or more languages, new words are coming at you all the time. Picking up new vocabulary is easier. It also aids in understanding roots, related words and definitions. Finally, if you’ve learned two languages, it opens the door to mastering a third and fourth.
  2. Sharper brain function
    Parts of the brain that help control, direct and focus your attention (executive brain function) get a boost. People fluent in more than one language have an easier time ignoring information that isn’t important. They can plan and complete actions more efficiently. This edge extends to problem-solving skills, too.
  3. Better multi-tasking skills
    People who speak more than one language are in a constant state of multi-tasking. This extends to activities beyond translating words. Studies show functioning in multiple language makes you better at mastering multiple anything.
  4. Stronger ties with community and culture
    Languages carry centuries of history. Learning them means learning about other cultures and people. It fosters empathy for others. Research shows acquiring two languages helps “Theory of Mind” development – the ability to understand other people and their behavior.
  5. Slow onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
    Brain scans show the bilingual brain helps compensate for brain changes caused by aging. It uses alternative brain networks and connections when the original pathways are damaged or destroyed. Researchers call it “cognitive compensation.”

Christina is grateful that her parents ensured she is equally comfortable speaking English and Spanish – along with bigger view of the world and other brain-related advantages.

“Growing up, I knew that I had to speak to my mother in English and my father in Spanish,” she adds. “My maternal grandmother, who also spoke Spanish, reinforced my father’s teachings and gave me someone else to communicate with in Spanish.”

Do you have a story about being bilingual or its benefits? Share it with us in the comments below. 

Sources: American Community Survey: Language Spoken at Home by Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Over, leaving site icon United States Census Bureau, 2021; Raising Bilingual Children, leaving site icon Linguistics Society of America, 2022; How a Second Language Can Boost the Brain, leaving site icon Knowable Magazine, 2018; 10 Benefits of Bilingualism, According the Science, leaving site icon Big Think, 2022

Originally published 9/28/2016; Revised 2023