Benefits of Multilingualism
Why is Multilingualism Beneficial?
The article aims to inform about the benefits of multilingualism, classified based on the impact on the individual and society level. In particular, we will be focusing on the benefits pertaining to mental processes, learning, prevention of diseases and the workplace for the individual as well as the benefits pertaining to political and economic areas and the management of crises. In the past, multilingualism was viewed negatively but in recent years, the benefits of multilingualism has been recognised by researchers. With the increasing awareness of the benefits of multilingualism, it can be anticipated that multilingualism will continue to be a major part of global society.
The following video can provide a good background of the topic, prior to delving into any of the above sections.
Various linguists view multilingualism or bilingualism on a continuum, with broad and narrow definitions. In a broad sense, multilingualism involves being able to comprehend and speak more than two languages (Diamond, 2010; Myers-Scotton, 2008). In a narrow sense, multilingualism can occur from childhood into adulthood across a long span of time, and it can be also viewed in terms of individuals or as a society (Cenoz & Genesee, 1998).
In consideration of various linguists’ perspectives, we would define multilingualism as having competence in more than two languages (Diamond, 2010; Myers-Scotton, 2008) with respect to various linguistic aspects such as speaking, reading, or writing.
In the past, researchers were critical of bilingualism and presented the view that learning more than one language impeded learning. However, the presence of other factors which affected bilingualism, such as socioeconomic status and education, led to the researchers’ misinterpretation of bilingualism (Diamond, 2010). Later studies, which accounted for the above factors, have demonstrated that both bilinguals and monolinguals share common traits in cognition and language processing. Increasingly, researchers have also been discovering more benefits of multilingualism (Diamond, 2010).
Multilingualism is also a common phenomenon in the world (Cenoz & Genesee, 1998). A huge proportion of the people in the world are becoming or are multilinguals (Linguistic Society of America, 2012), as people become increasingly aware of the benefits of multilingualism. Thus, knowledge on this topic is becoming highly relevant and significant in the globalised community. This review will examine several benefits of multilingualism as surveyed in the literature.
The benefits of multilingualism can be observed on the individual level. These include individual benefits for mental processes, learning, protection from cognitive diseases and workplace.
Various research has shown that multilingualism benefits mental processes in the brain, such as attention, decision-making and executive functioning. Krizman, Marian, Shook, Skoe, & Kraus (2012) found that multilingualism enhances speech perception, attention and working memory. In their study, Spanish-English bilingual high school students and English monolingual high school students were tasked to listen to the speech sound [da] in both quiet and noisy conditions, while their brain activity was measured. It was found that the bilingual students were able to maintain their focus when they heard the speech sound in a noisy environment, as compared to English monolinguals.They also showed enhanced auditory brainstem response to specific sounds in a complex auditory environment. This suggests that the complex linguistic environment of a bilingual, having grown up with two languages, could have honed his or her ability to be more sensitive in distinguishing sounds. Hence, the attentional abilities of bilinguals would be enhanced.
In addition, multilinguals reportedly have better executive functioning – a system in the brain that helps to control the attentional processes used in daily life, such as in “planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks” (Bhattacharjee, 2012). In a study by Kovács and Mehler (2009), 7-month-old bilingual infants were found to be more adept than monolingual infants at adjusting to “unpredictable rule changes”. Infants were trained to look for pictures of a puppet presented “on the left side of a computer screen” each time they heard an arbitrary trisyllable (e.g., “lo-lo-vu”) (Kovács & Mehler, 2009). Both bilingual and monolingual infants were able to anticipate the puppets by looking at the left hand side of the screen each time the trisyllable sounded. However, when the puppets were presented on the right side of the screen upon the trisyllable sound cue, only the bilingual infants were able to respond accurately by looking at the right side of the screen in subsequent trials, while monolingual infants were unable to do so, continuing to look at the left side of the screen.
Considering the benefits of bilingualism exhibited at a young age even before speech has started, with mere exposure in this study, it is plausible that using more than one language from young would enhance cognitive processes.
Moreover, using another language reduces the tendency of bias in decision making (Keysar, Hayakawa, & An, 2012). According to Keysar, Hayakawa and An (2012), non-native languages, compared to native, create more emotional detachment in participants, opposing the notion that decision-making in another language is less beneficial resulting from increased mental load. Knowing additional languages could allow people to view matters and make decisions more objectively.
There is substantial evidence to demonstrate that being multilingual can enhance one’s ability in general learning. In a study conducted by Deyi, Simon, Ngcobo, & Thole (2007), it was shown that multilingualism is important for improving the communication skills of children, thus allowing them to develop their ability to think holistically, as communication skills would promote the development of “self-awareness, knowledge product and an ability to think innovatively in alternative disciplines” (Deyi et al., 2007). It also shows that being multilingual could equip children with better study skills. Children would be able to incorporate concepts into their understanding, as they would have to delve deeper into their own learning.
Being multilingual could improve one’s aptitude for language learning, particularly when learning a foreign language. A study conducted by researchers at University of Haifa (2011) displayed that students fluent in two languages find it easier to learn a third language, as compared to students fluent in only one language. It was also found that thepreservation of one’s mother tongue in a bilingual environment does not jeopardise the learning of a second language. In the study, students with Russian and Hebrew as their first and second languages respectively exhibited a higher level of competence in English as a foreign language. In contrast, students who speak only Hebrew as their first language found it more difficult to learn English as a foreign language, as compared to their bilingual counterparts. Also, the bilingual students displayed a higher level of proficiency in Hebrew, as compared to the students who are Hebrew monolinguals. This suggests that an individual’s fluency and skills in one language would be beneficial in the language acquisition of a second language. In turn, being competent in two languages can enhance one’s learning process of a third language.
Multilingualism could be a means to guard against dementia. Dementia is a broad term used to describe the symptoms faced by people with brain dysfunctions or impairments; the symptoms are usually associated with “memory, language and thinking” (Medical News Today, 2014, p. 1). Alzheimer’s disease, which will be discussed in the section after, is the most common cause leading to dementia (World Health Organisation, 2012).
Compared to monolinguals, multilinguals have an advantage of several years’ delay before the onset of dementia (Alladi et al., 2013; Bialystok, Craik, & Freedman, 2007; Craik, Bialystok, & Freedman, 2010). The advantage extends to illiterate individuals too (Alladi et al., 2013).
Indian multilingual patients had an advantage of about four years before dementia developed, compared to monolinguals. However, within the study, there was no further advantage for those who spoke more than two languages (Alladi et al., 2013).
Research conducted by Bialystok et al. (2007) involving Canadian dementia patients indicated a later onset of 4.1 years for bilingual patients, as compared to monolingual patients, which is a significant difference. However, it is worthy to note that the “protective effect of bilingualism” may not be applicable to bilinguals with low proficiency in the second language (Bialystok et al., 2007, p. 462). The same researchers followed up with another study a few years later – bilingual immigrant patients were diagnosed 4.3 years later and reportedly experienced onset of cognitive impairment 5.1 years later than monolinguals (Craik et al., 2010).
As it is believed that the multilingual advantage could extend to language learners in their adulthood and beyond (Wanjek, 2013), more research can be done to verify whether and to what extent multilingualism benefits language learners of various ages against dementia. Future research could include how dementia patients from different countries (and thus linguistic environments) may experience different extents of benefits.
Being bilingual could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.
According to Diamond (2010), among Canadian elderly who were prone to Alzheimer’s disease, the bilingual elderly patients displayed initial symptoms 5 years older than monolingual patients. Considering the life expectancy of Canadians at 79, a 5 year delay means that there will be a 47% decreased probability that people in their seventies will even develop Alzheimer’s symptoms at all before their deaths (Diamond, 2010).
From a neurolinguistic perspective, a small proportion of patients with Alzheimer’s disease appear to have high levels of brain atrophy (loss of neurons) despite having relatively good cognitive function (Schweizer, Ware, Fischer, Craik, & Bialystok, 2012); this phenomenon has been widely linked to the ideas of “brain reserve” and “cognitive reserve” (Stern, 2002).
The following definitions may be helpful in understanding the expressions. Reserve can be defined as “amount of damage that can be sustained before reaching a threshold for clinical expression” in passive models and “differences in how the task is processed” in active models (Stern, 2002, p. 449).
According to Stern (2012), brain reserve refers to physical differences in the brain that may withstand changes due to diseases; whereas cognitive reserve refers to personal variation in how tasks are done, leading to some people being more robust than others.
With this understanding, it has been shown that bilinguals with Alzheimer’s disease had larger extents of brain atrophy, as compared to monolinguals performing at the same level cognitively, suggesting that bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve of a person to function; thus assisting to counter the disease (Liu, Yip, Fan, & Meguro, 2012; Schweizer et al., 2012).
Future studies could investigate the relationship between how and when a person learns the second language and how this would influence the disease conditions of patients (Alladi et al., 2013). More research could be done to support or disagree with the notion that there are advantages against Alzheimer’s disease for people who speak more than two languages (Diamond, 2010).
Knowing more than one language has been increasingly important in order to communicate in a wide range of workplaces, and to contribute to cultural diversity desired by employers (Kasselmann, 2007; Silveria, 2014).
Jim Smith, executive director of Cambridge Center for Adult Education remarked, “flight attendants, sales representatives, geologists, paralegals, travel agents, bank tellers, and social workers all find a second language helpful or necessary in their jobs”, which highly exemplifies the widespread need for multilingualism in various walks of life (Kassselmann, 2007, p. 1).
In the business world, there is a strong requirement for companies to utilise various native languages to target customers effectively as found in surveys (Graham, 2011). Therefore, it is important for businesses to adapt to the languages used in the foreign markets. This includes taking measures to make different translations available on company websites in order to connect with customers in a foreign country, and enhancing marketability of the business (Graham, 2011).
Multilingualism can also facilitate creativity, a skill valuable in the workplace. When exposed to living abroad and when reminded of multicultural experiences requiring more than one solution, participants experience enhanced creativity (Maddux, Adam, & Galinsky, 2010). This suggests that multilinguals, who are indirectly exposed to various cultures, will display greater creativity as opposed to non-multilinguals.
Knowing a second language is useful for professionals particularly in the healthcare industry, such as social workers, doctors and nurses (Kasselmann, 2007). Well-trained interpreters are viewed to contribute to the patients’ recovery (Flores, 2010).
Conversely, lack of multilingualism in healthcare professionals can lead to serious trouble in the field. If individual patients do not understand the lingua franca, they become less motivated to share their conditions with the doctor or may even discontinue treatment (Flores, 2000). With communication barriers between patients and medical staff, there are high chances that patients may not receive quality treatments (Greenbaum, 2014).
According to Flores et al. (2003), translation errors happen frequently in day-to-day procedures, in which almost half of such cases potentially led to serious and dangerous medical issues, for instance, instructions were given to a parent to administer oral antibiotic into the child’s ears instead of mouth. Interpreter mistakes resulted in wrong diagnoses, which in turn led to avoidable lawsuit settlements involving huge quantities of compensation (Flores et al, 2003).
Considering the Executive Order 13166 law (“Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency”) that has been in effect since August 2000 in United States, the existence of such medical misinterpretations indicates that not only a greater number of multilingual interpreters are needed, the interpreters must also be workplace-trained (U.S. English, 2003).
Apart from the individual benefits, there are also social benefits of multilingualism. The ability to speak more than one language would give one an edge, interculturally. These are seen in the economic and political areas as well as in incidences of emergency.
From a logical perspective, powerful weapons and excellent battle strategies are essential for the defense and security of the nation. However, those are not enough, rather, having a handle on more than one language for communication has been found to be important in the battle. The United States defense department is now encouraging its defense operation personnel to study a foreign language so that they can be more equipped in understanding the other culture that may be involved in the battlefield as well as in negotiations (Garamone, 2010).
In some countries, multilingualism is necessary. A study by Simire (2003) found that multilingualism is a practical need in order to enhance the development and progress of Nigeria in the political, economical and sociocultural areas. There are many languages in Nigeria. 400-513 are Nigerian languages, not including dialects, of which a 100 have been reduced to writing. 51 Nigerian languages are used for administrative educational divisions, 10 used inter-regionally and 3 are national languages. Although English is the official national language, Anglo-Nigerian pidgins are used as the lingua franca. Also, statistics show that though 33% of Nigerians are literate in English, only 15% effectively use it in professional and administrative tasks. This highlights the need for multilingualism in order to reach a linguistically diverse population.
With the vast diversity of languages in Nigeria, the Nigerian government faces the problem of communicating its plans for the nation as a large proportion of the population do not speak English and still speak in their code languages. The benefits of multilingualism here is that it is the key to reach people who may be isolated because of language. This is a better alternative to attempting to change the spoken language of the people who do not speak any of the major languages to communicate in a common language such as English for instance. Although knowing English would be useful, it would not be easy to do so as it takes time for citizens to learn the language. Moreover, multilingualism grants access to connect with people (Kolb, 2012). As Nelson Mandela articulates, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart” (Interspeech 2014 Singapore, 2014). In this context, it can be seen that multilingualism is a challenge to countries in making plans for the development of the nation. However, if the benefits of multilingualism can be recognised, it should not be seen as a ‘plague’ but a resource.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart” ~Nelson Mandela
Although English has become a major universal world language in the increasingly globalised world, knowing how to use more than one language is still important for jobs and businesses (Kasselmann, 2007). According to Grin, Sfreddo and Vaillancourt (2010), there are increased productivity, costs and profits in businesses with multilingualism; Small & Medium Enterprises (SMEs) surveyed who used more languages in export had a larger demand for export, high turnover rates and more customers (as cited in Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Aotearoa New Zealand [TESOLANZ], 2012).
Habib (2011) examined the small and medium enterprises of Swedish, Danish, German and French Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) and found that multilingual skills and the success of export were linked. In the study, Swedish SMEs were found to be using fewer market languages in export – 3 market languages, compared to the German and French SMEs who used up to 12 and 8 market languages respectively. It was reported that the SMEs who used more market languages in export had a larger number of export countries, with high export turnover rates as well as more foreign customers, in contrast to SMEs that used fewer market languages. Thus, multilingualism is a useful tool in the economy.
Multilingualism is also beneficial in crises. In emergencies, although skill is important, communication is even more crucial. In the recent Haitian earthquake, Creole speakers were needed to assist in rescue operations to speak with the natives (Garamone, 2010). Apart from that, multilingualism is increasingly acknowledged as a need for defense personnel to interact effectively with the diverse population in the world. It also gives defense operations an edge in a multilingual society. The United States defense department is now encouraging its defense operation personnel to study a foreign language so that they can be more equipped in understanding the other culture that may be involved in the battlefield as well as in negotiations (Garamone, 2010).
In the Singapore context, Chinese vernacular languages were used in radio and television announcements, while Singlish was used in a song commissioned by the Government to alert citizens to take note of hygiene precautions during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic in 2003 (Wee, 2010). Although the Chinese vernacular languages are usually banned in media platforms, an exception was made during SARS, on the basis that broadcasting using these Chinese vernacular languages was necessary in order to reach the elderly who can only speak and understand the Chinese vernacular languages (Wee, 2010). Also, although Singlish is usually frowned upon and discouraged by the Government, Singlish was intentionally used in this instance on the basis of reaching out to the “less educated Singaporeans” (Wee, 2010). Therefore, the use of these languages during the pandemic show the importance for the Government to know the linguistic practices of the nation in order to communicate effectively and to reach every member of the public so that no one would be neglected.
All in all, multilingualism seems to be viewed much more positively today as compared to the past. Many researchers today are in favour of the effects of multilingualism. Indeed, this is supported by the wide range of substantial benefits found through academic research that have been selected and included above, varying from individual cognitive to workplace and societal advantages.
In time to come, as growing multilingualism-related research continues to reveal advantages, multilingualism is likely to be viewed with greater importance in society.
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First Created Loy Kheng Wee, Natalie Sophia Law, Tan Hue Kay, AY2014/15 Semester 1