If you speak a second language, you have the obvious social advantage of being able to converse with a larger percentage of humans who inhabit the Earth. But research suggests the benefits of being bilingual may be far more extensive — and lucrative — than that.
The bilingual brain, it seems, may be better equipped to problem-solve, stay focused, stave off dementia, and potentially even command a higher paycheck.
“I don’t think there is ever a downside to being bilingual,” said Joseph Dicks, director of the Second Language Research Institute of Canada at the University of New Brunswick. “You never know when it might give you an extra advantage, especially as the world becomes more globalized.”
About half of us?
Estimates on the number of people who speak two or more languages worldwide are difficult to nail down due to the vast number of regional dialects. But many researchers estimate it is roughly 50 percent worldwide.
In the European Union, roughly three-quarters (73 percent) of those age 25 to 34 reported that they knew at least one foreign language, according to one report. That number dropped with each successive age group. Roughly half (55 percent) of those age 55 to 64 indicated they were bilingual. 1
That figure is far less in the United States. The Census Bureau reports that of the 292 million Americans in 2017 who were at least 5 years old, roughly 22 percent spoke a language other than English at home. In prior years, more than three-quarters (77 percent) of that group surveyed said they also spoke English “well” or “very well.” 2
As in Europe, American millennials, which are loosely defined as those born between the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, are much more likely to speak two languages than their predecessors, prompting marketers to dub them “the billennial generation.” 3
Researchers note the potential benefits of being bilingual or multilingual apply to any combination of languages, but the vast majority of Americans who are bilingual speak English and Spanish, a by-product of Hispanics being the dominant minority. (Related: Hispanics face greater retirement risks)
Nearly 36 million Hispanics and 2.6 million non-Hispanics speak Spanish in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. Latino adults who are the children of immigrant parents are most likely to be bilingual. Among this group, half are bilingual.4
Bilingualism equals brain power
For the first half of the 21st century, language specialists largely believed the benefit of being bilingual was strictly limited to the ability to better communicate. Some even thought it may negatively impact IQ.
“There was this notion that there was only so much space in the brain and if you filled up that space then there would be less left over for other important things,” said Dicks, in an interview. “That was one early theory.”
But much has changed. A growing body of evidence now suggests that the ability to speak two or more languages may actually alter and enhance the developing brain.
In decades of research, Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at York University in Toronto, Canada, linked bilingualism to more effective processing, or executive function skills, in children. Kids who have to adapt their language skills continually to suit the audience (teachers, grandparents, siblings) are simply better at staying focused and remaining on task, she found.
“It’s not that you learn language processing skills and therefore that ability is sitting around ready for the next task,” said Bialystok, in an interview. “There’s no transfer going on. It is simply that exposure to bilingual or multilingual environments starting at birth has the effect of reconfiguring cognition and attention systems in the developing mind. Their brains just work differently.”
Resistance to aging decline?
Equally interesting, Bialystok and a team of researchers found bilinguals may be more resistant to age-related cognitive decline, as well. Her studies found bilinguals were generally older than monolinguals when Alzheimer’s, dementia and other signs of cognitive decline set in. 5
The study abstract, published in the Journal of Psychology and Aging, notes: “In all cases, the bilingual advantage was greater for older participants. It appears, therefore, that controlled processing is carried out more effectively by bilinguals and that bilingualism helps to offset age-related losses in certain executive processes.”
Bialystok said it’s important that the scientific community not overstate the positive effects of language skills. “The truth is, most of the time in daily life it doesn’t matter if you can process something a millisecond faster than someone else — until it does,” she said. “As you get older, and your brain is challenged with neurodegenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s, it seems to matter. Bilinguals appear to be better able to cope.”
Bilingualism boosts future earnings
The ability to speak more than one language may have economic advantages, too, especially in cities with large immigrant populations, like Miami and Los Angeles, where bilingualism could give job applicants a competitive edge.
According to the Center for Latin American, Caribbean & Latino Studies at the City University of New York, bilingual Latinos in the United States earn a median total personal income of $30,000 per year, about 10 percent more than their monolingual Latino counterparts, who earned roughly $25,000. 6
Apart from a bigger paycheck, job applicants may find their language skills help boost their demand in the labor market, making it easier to find and retain work. Dicks noted, however, that the potential upside of linguistic talent may be more pronounced in countries like the U.S., with large immigrant populations and relatively fewer job candidates who can speak two languages. (Related: Should you accept that job?)
In European countries, like Switzerland and the United Kingdom, where many speak multiple languages, employers simply expect linguistic prowess. By contrast, employers in the U.S. may reward bilingual workers who can better communicate with a wider pool of consumers.
Foreign language skills play an increasingly important role in making young people more employable and equipping them for working abroad, the European Commission, which actively promotes language learning, notes on its website. “Languages unite people, render other countries and their cultures accessible, and strengthen intercultural understanding. Foreign language skills play a vital role in enhancing employability and mobility.”
Dicks said it is likely the case that the economic benefit of being bilingual is more exaggerated in certain industries, like real estate and retail, where employees interact directly with a diverse cross section of potential clients. Similarly, those who can translate complex medical jargon are highly prized in the health care setting.
The cognitive and economic advantages of being bilingual may never be fully defined, but amid all the research and scientific debate, Bialystok said one thing is clear: speaking a second language broadens your cultural perspective and expands your communication skills.
“Whatever you want to say about it, the bottom line is that being bilingual means you speak two languages and that can’t be bad,” she said.
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This article was originally published in September, 2017. It has been updated.
1 Eurostat,”Foreign Language Skills Explained,2019
2 U.S. Census Bureau, “American Community Survey Reports: Languages Spoken At Home By Ability To Speak English,” 2017.
3 Nielsen, “Millennials – Breaking the Myths” 2014.
4 Pew Research Center, “English Proficiency on the Rise Among Latinos,” 2015.
5 Journal of Psychology and Aging, “Bilingualism, Aging, and Cognitive Control: Evidence from the Simon Task,” 2004.
6 Center for Latin American, Caribbean & Latino Studies, CUNY, “Is Spanish-English Bilingualism Truly an Economic Benefit in New York?”, Nov. 2012.