The benefi ts of being bilingual


Whenever I travel abroad, I am invariably impressed by the language abilities of adults and children in whatever country I’m visiting. During a recent trip to Argentina, I enjoyed the opportunity to use my rudimentary Spanish, but usually the conversation shifted pretty quickly to English, because whomever I was speaking with was much more fluent in English than I was in Spanish.

I couldn’t help but wonder why being bilingual in the United States isn’t more common.

While varying definitions of being bilingual and different survey methodologies together lead to a range in the reported numbers of bilingual Americans, our rate is certainly less than the 50-to-66 percent of people worldwide who are estimated to be bilingual. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2009 that 20 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home. A carefully conducted Gallup Poll found that 26 percent of U.S. residents say they speak another language. Another survey found that 21 percent of children ages 5 to 17 in the United States speak a language in addition to English. A reasonable estimate would be that Americans are on average about half as likely to be bilingual as the rest of the world.

Some of this is because of the English-only movement that has waxed and waned in influence over the years. Closely related to anti-immigration and restrictive policies, the English-only efforts are enjoying somewhat of resurgence with the rhetoric of the current political campaign. There was also the belief among many researchers, educators and policymakers through much of the 20th century that a second language actually interfered with a child’s academic and cognitive development. Such attitudes, to the degree that they still hold sway, no doubt also contribute to the relative lack of individuals in the U.S. who speak more than one language.

Judging from the declining number of college students who are studying a foreign language, things aren’t on the path to change any time soon. The Modern Language Association periodically tracks these numbers, and it reported that 100,000 fewer college students took classes in languages other than English in 2013 as compared to 2009. About a year ago, it was reported that only 7 percent of college students were enrolled in a foreign language course.

The current status and trends are alarming for several reasons. The Colgate Center for Language and the Brain predicts that by 2050, 85 percent of the world’s population will be multilingual. Unless something dramatic changes in the U.S. patterns, we will be left in the dust as a monolingual anachronism. The importance of multilingualism to maintain economic competitiveness, ensure our security, and effectively deal with cultural diversity at home is growing every year.

Individuals who know more than one language have greater access to people and resources. They have a broader worldview, access to more information, and enhanced employment opportunities. Children who learn English as a second language and maintain their first language assimilate well but keep strong ties with their family and their culture of origin.

There is a body of research — admittedly not universally accepted — that shows substantial cognitive benefits associated with bilingualism. These studies have found bilingual children to be more cognitively flexible and have better executive function (attention, planning, problem solving, etc.). There is general agreement that greater proficiency in more than one language is associated with resistance to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults.

The easiest time to learn a second (or third) language is during childhood. Perhaps because acquiring language is one of the central tasks of childhood. Even children with learning disabilities can learn a second language with relative ease compared with most adults.

English-only supporters have argued that bilingual education is ineffective and only serves to maintain students as non-integrated non-English speakers. However, a careful review of the available evidence came to exactly the opposite conclusion: bilingual education is effective, it serves to bridge the gap between home and school for immigrant children, and — done right— it enhances achievement, self-esteem, and intergroup cooperation.

— Gregory K. Fritz, M.D., is academic director at Bradley Hospital and editor of the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter.