(Excerpted and adapted from Parenting with An Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children by Masha Rumer (Beacon Press, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. Masha Rumer is the author of a nonfiction book about immigrant families, Parenting with an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children, published by Beacon press in November 2021. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Parents, Scary Mommy, Los Angeles Review of Books and others, winning awards from the New York Press Association. Follow her on Twitter at @mashaDC or on Instagram at @masharumer. Website: www.masharumer.com/.)
When you’re a nonnative English speaker living in the United States, it’s easy to feel like an outsider, especially when you’re asked to repeat yourself and spell your name until you’ve had enough and want to say, Forget it, just call me JC!
Actually, one out of five people in America now speaks a language other than English at home. And more than half of the world is bilingual.
Bilingualism, with some exceptions, was also widely accepted in the United States until the late 19th century, when anti-immigrant sentiment swept across the country. In 1918, Iowa governor William L. Harding outlawed public use of all foreign languages in the state. Former president Theodore Roosevelt shared this mindset. “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language; for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house,” Roosevelt wrote.
As research eventually proved, though, bilingualism has lots of advantages.
Connection to one’s roots
On a basic human level, knowing another language helps many of us stay connected to our heritage and communicate with relatives in the U.S. and abroad, all of which is immeasurable.
Bilingualism makes people better communicators. Even mere exposure to a multilingual environment can help children see things from a different perspective. In one study from the University of Chicago, kids were asked to move objects like toy cars to different locations, taking into account the point of view of the adult in the room. The bilingual kids and those from multilingual environments moved the correct cars more than 75 percent of the time, while monolinguals got it right only half the time. Bilinguals constantly monitor for clues in social situations to figure out what language to use with others, making them socially aware.
Early reading skills
Bilingual children have better-developed metalinguistic awareness (the ability to think about words and language as abstract things). This may help them learn to read earlier.
“I’ll have another language with that language”
If you love the perks of knowing two languages, why not try, say, a third one? That’s because being bilingual in childhood makes picking up another language later in life easier, studies have shown.
Cognitive perks for all ages
Yet a huge advantage of bilingualism is cognitive. It’s a workout for the brain.
I decide to speak to Professor Ellen Bialystok, a renowned cognitive neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. Bialystok has spent over 40 years researching bilingualism, earning the title of the Officer of the Order of Canada, one of the nation’s highest honors, for her groundbreaking conclusions.
One is that bilingualism can delay the symptoms and diagnosis of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, in older bilingual adults by four to five years.
In another famous study, Bialystok and her colleagues showed that bilingual children are better at focusing, multitasking, and weeding out unnecessary information, skills collectively known as executive function.
In the bilingual brain, both languages are active at the same time, forcing the speaker to constantly control which one to use and which one to suppress.
“That’s a crazy way to build a brain. A smart thing would be to put in a switch, so you flip it. But that’s not how the bilingual brain is organized,” Bialystok explains. “Bilinguals are always having to solve a problem of attending to the language they need to be using right now and not getting distracted by that other language,” she says.
These executive function skills predict long-term academic success and well-being, she adds.
But bilingualism isn’t a magic bullet, Bialystok cautions. “The kinds of outrageous claims I’ve read, you know, bilinguals are taller, prettier, nicer, kinder—come on, it’s all rubbish,” Bialystok says. “They’re none of those things. They just have better executive functioning.”
Besides, people don’t study languages to be smarter, she adds.
“You learn a foreign language because it’s going to make you more knowledgeable, it’s going to give you a better perspective,” Bialystok says. “It’s going to make you a more sympathetic person, because if you learn a language, you learn about other people who speak that language.”