While a mid-July blast of heat and humidity makes DeKalb swelter, a group of English…
The region’s demand for employees who speak more than one language is on the rise, but beefing up the résumé certainly isn’t the only benefit to being bilingual.
Picking up a second language will likely sharpen your intellect and improve your quality of life, according to NIU language experts.
Those experts include Katharina Barbe, foreign languages and literatures chair; Spanish linguistics professor Karen Lichtman, who researches second-language acquisition; Katja Wiemer, an NIU cognitive psychology professor; John Evar Strid, a literacy education professor who researches bilingualism; and Spanish linguistics professor Mandy Faretta-Stutenberg, who studies the relationship between cognitive abilities and second-language acquisition.
Turns out, these faculty members had no trouble coming up with a host of reasons to learn a second language. Here’s a quick list of just some of the benefits of bilingualism.
OK, we’ll start with the obvious. All of our experts agree that being bilingual can be a significant career advantage. It is something Barbe stresses when talking to students interested in studying a foreign language. “I usually start by talking about the advantages second-language learners can realize, both in terms of salary and employability,” she says. “But I also talk about the sense of adventure when learning a new language and culture.”
Since bilinguals have the potential to earn more than monolinguals within in their respective professions, the “language bonus” can translate to more retirement dinero. This article in The Economist looked at a hypothetical case where a bilingual worker banked his or her language bonus over time. It found that speaking Spanish is worth an extra $51,000 in your retirement account, French is worth $77,000, and German $128,000.
3) A better understanding of your native language
Our first language comes to us so naturally that we don’t often think deeply about its organization. “When you’re able to compare two languages,” Lichtman says, “you learn that there are other possible ways of doing things, such as structuring a sentence or expressing tense. So, ultimately, you gain a better understanding of how your first language is constructed.”
Being bilingual makes travel easier and more exciting and allows for more personal interactions. “You can get much deeper into the places you visit if you know the language,” Lichtman says. “Otherwise, you’re just a tourist.”
5) Other languages come easier
Once you learn a second language, learning the third or fourth is easier, Lichtman says. And she should know. Lichtman speaks four languages.
6) A global perspective
Learning another language raises the awareness that other countries and groups of people do things differently. “When you acquire a new language, you don’t just learn vocabulary,” Barbe says. “You learn to put that language in the context of a different culture.”
7) A bigger brain
The brain calisthenics associated with using two or more languages have a visible effect, Faretta-Stutenberg says. So bilingual brains look and work differently than monolingual brains. Bilinguals have better executive function—basically, an easier time switching between tasks and filtering out unnecessary information. And research has demonstrated that students who study a foreign language perform better in other subject areas. “What’s really exciting is that you don’t have to be bilingual from birth,” Faretta-Stutenberg adds. “A recent study showed brain growth in adults who were trained intensively in a second language over a period of just 14 months.”
Lifelong bilingualism has been shown to slow the detrimental effects of natural aging on neurological efficiency. “As bilinguals age, they outperform monolinguals in cognitive functions, such as recall of episodic memories,” Wiemer says. She notes that the advantage is correlated with the age at which a person acquires the second language. So earlier bilingualism leads to more pronounced brain benefits. Professor Strid also cites recent research that has shown the onset of dementia occurs on average four to five years later in bilinguals than monolinguals.
9) Broader education options
Knowing a second language expands your study abroad horizon because some programs have language requirements, Barbe says. That’s also true of many Ph.D. programs, so speaking a second languages provides an edge when applying for graduate school. Strid notes that bilingualism also opens access to new sources of information, including foreign language speakers and literature and research articles that aren’t published in English.
The saying “lost in translation” is reality. “Some ideas and words that occur in one language are difficult to express in another language,” Strid says. For example, English cannot easily express levels of respect found in languages such as Korean or Japanese.
If any of those reasons have piqued your interest in studying another language, check out NIU’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. It offers instruction in 14 languages, including Burmese, Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Khmer, Russian, Tagalog and Thai.