I recently started a new job in the Mexico City office of a major Silicon Valley company. There's nothing like working in a multinational start-up office to make you ogle at the linguistic abilities of everyone there. My Venezuelan team lead trains half the team in rapid-fire Spanish and the other half in English, and our team members routinely start a sentence in Spanish and end it in English. I find half my thoughts start in English and end in Spanish as the weeks go on, a new phenomenon that has me feeling closer to the global norm of being bilingual.
Most countries have more than one official language -- Zimbabwe has 16, South Africa lists 11, Aboriginal Australia is home to 130 indigenous languages, and India is home to at least 22 languages! An estimated 60-75% of the world speaks at least two languages (versus only 20% of the population of the United States), making monolingual native English speakers a minority.
And perhaps we're missing out.
Being multilingual has numerous benefits, from long-term psychological health advantages to simply being more attractive on the job -- and dating -- market. If you find yourself struggling to stay motivated in French class, perhaps we can entice you with our discussion of nine concrete benefits of being fluent in another language.
1. Being Bilingual Literally Pays Off
With less than 20% of Americans speaking another language, being bilingual gives you a serious advantage on the job market. Studies have shown that on average, bilingual employees can earn between 5-10% more per hour than their monolingual peers, and that can certainly add up over a lifetime. Another estimate put the value of speaking a second language at $128,000 over 40 years. Not to mention it makes you more valuable to your employer and more likely to be sent on overseas assignments.
In another study, MIT economist Albert Saiz reported that bilingual college graduates earn 2% higher wages on average, which The Economist believes can add up to an additional $67,000 in savings by retirement for this people.
I've used my foreign language skills (fluency in Spanish and Chinese) in every single job I've had since graduating university in 2011, in everything from consulting to sales and now global operations. My knowledge and enthusiasm for foreign languages has come up in every single job interview I've ever done, not only because of its utility but because of what it says about my intellectual curiosity and ability to learn new things.
2. Bilingualism is Highly Valued on the Job Market
Knowing another language makes your resume stand out in a huge pool of job applicants. National and multinational organizations of all types have a need for multilingual professionals and being one of them makes you a more versatile and highly valued employee.
Bilingualism is even more applicable to certain career fields, such as national security, public health, tourism, international non-profit management, education, and even jobs in the military. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that jobs in the field of translation and interpretation are among the fastest growing occupations in the United States, with an anticipated growth rate of 19% over the next 10 years.
3. Bilingual People Have a Better Memory
Studies show that when given memory tasks, bilingual people score higher than people who are monolingual. Neuropsychologist Rubin Abutalebi from the University of San Raffaele in Milan says it's possible to distinguish bilingual people from monolinguists simply by looking at scans of their brains. He says, “Bilingual people have significantly more gray matter than monolinguals in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and that is because they are using it so much more often,” which is like cognitive muscle basically, so the more often you use it, the stronger it gets.
Other studies show that people who speak more than one language are also better at remembering names, items on a shopping list, and directions -- very practical applications of a strong multilingual brain indeed!
4. Being Bilingual Opens Up Interesting Cultural and Social Opportunities.
Speaking another language fluently allows you the path into the mind -- and heart -- of another people and culture. It presents you the opportunity to make friends with people who share that language and background, and even partake in their love of certain music, movies, and books in that language.
When it comes to traveling, speaking the local language creates a much more immersive experience. You'll be able to talk directly with the locals, rent local apartments, bargain in the language (and get better deals), order the right food, and ask for directions when you get lost. Everything becomes more seamless… and more fun!
Especially when you're completely bilingual, you're not just having basic, superficial conversations with the people you meet, you're able to truly connect with people by having an elaborate conversation with them in the local language.
5. Bilingual People are Apparently More Attractive
Being able to live your life in two languages can definitely lead you to feel more intelligent, competent, and multicultural. The process of learning a second language also involves making a lot of mistakes and possibly sounding "stupid" on many occasions. Someone who got to the level of being bilingual bore those early days with grace and confidence, not being afraid to make mistakes while they were still perfecting their language abilities.
It can even boost your confidence in the dating market! A recent survey conducted by language software providers Babbel revealed that 71% of Americans and 61% of Britons think someone who is bilingual is more attractive and more intelligent. (Perhaps not entirely scientific, but interesting nonetheless!)
6. Speaking Another Language Boosts Long-Term Neurological Health
Countless studies have also found that bilingual people develop dementia an average of 4.5 years later than older people who speak only one language. It doesn't prevent the disease, but the extra "gray matter" from the ACC compensates for the neural deterioration.
Another study of 600 stroke survivors in India showed that bilinguals recovered twice as fast as monolinguals. It's also been documented that bilingual people have better planning and problem-solving skills overall.
7. Bilingual People are Better at Multi-Tasking
People who speak more than one language are very skilled at switching between the languages they speak. In order to do this, their brains remain highly in tune with their physical environments, constantly monitoring for which language needs to be used. According to a study from Penn State University, this makes these people very adept at multitasking, and even better drivers!
8. Bilingual People Get to Experience Feeling Like Different People
Susan Ervin-Tripp studied Japanese-English bilingual women in the 1960s by asking them to finish sentences in each language and found that the women responded very differently depending on which language she asked them to use. For example, when asked to complete the sentence "When my wishes conflict with my family..." in English, the women said things like "I do what I want," in Japanese, "it is a time of great unhappiness." These huge spectrums of responses caused her to develop the psycholinguistic theory that human thought takes place within language "mindsets" -- perhaps why many bilingual people note feeling almost "like "a different person" when they speak a different language.
Research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that bilingual people emphasize different character traits depending on which language they're using. In the study, some subjects who spoke fluent French and Portuguese were perceived as sounding "angry" in French but "well-mannered" in Portuguese.
Another study found that some bilinguals classified themselves differently based on which language they spoke. Bilingual Hispanic women reported feeling more assertive when they spoke Spanish, or even registering different feelings when seeing the same advertisement in English or Spanish.
9. Bilingual People are More Empathetic
Many tests have shown bilingual people to outperform monolinguals in a range of tests that demonstrate how well they read other people. It's thought that bilingual people are more empathetic because their brain blocks out their second language and focuses on the one needed to communicate with the person in front of them.
Another study produced evidence that although people are distracted by their own beliefs when trying to comprehend the beliefs of others, bilinguals were less susceptible to this type of cognitive bias and therefore better able to understand the perspectives of others.
We're Programmed to Learn Languages
While it may seem like common sense that learning another language is beneficial, did you know that this perspective on bilingualism is considerably different than the one purported throughout much of the 20th century? At that time, teachers, scientists, and politicians considered a second language to be a hindrance to a person's academic and intellectual development, especially for young children who were thought to become "confused" when learning multiple languages simultaneously.
We now know that children receive tremendous benefits by growing up bilingual, as do adults who become fluent in another language during adulthood.
In fact, we're simply programmed to learn languages. Whether or not you're bilingual today, you've already been through the highly complex process of applying a system of sounds to objects and concepts in your environment and using those sounds to convey ideas to other human beings. Although you did this as a baby in the process of acquiring your first language, it proves that we're all linguistically inclined from birth, and reigniting these skills at any point in life offers huge benefits to us, practically, socially, and psychologically.
This post was originally published in March 2017, and it was updated in July 2020.