In the spring of 1999, my parents and I flew from our home in Argentina to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Immediately upon arrival, we took notice of the overwhelming differences within this new world we had chosen to immerse ourselves in. The foreign sights and sounds we experienced once we left the airport fueled the nervous, yet delightful anxiety we felt for the future. Possibly the most immediate observation made was that a vastly different language, foreign from our own Spanish language, enveloped us in a flurry of voices and signs. Although my parents knew the basics of the English language, they certainly did not know enough to participate in a lengthy, intellectual conversation. The feeling of isolation that resulted from this liminal state only drove their desire to learn the language as quickly and efficiently as possible.
After only a few years, we refined our English and almost perfected our communication skills. Since I learned the language at a young age, I have no trace of an accent when speaking. My parents, however, are not as lucky. Even after 16 years of living in the United States, they are still ridiculed or looked down upon for their accents, regardless of their ability to communicate. Many Americans who frown on a person’s accent or broken English simply do not consider the numerous advantages that come with being bilingual or multilingual, as well as the amount of intellectual effort that speaking two or more languages requires.
It seems practical that to strive in an increasingly globalized world, one should speak multiple languages. And this is very true; a person has a much greater chance of closing an international business deal or finding a new employer in another country when they are able to communicate with the native speakers. In terms of travel, being bi- or multi-lingual makes visiting another country much more enjoyable. Being able to communicate with the locals of a certain area and understand what they are communicating back is a fantastic feeling. A person feels much more connected with a culture and its people when they grasp the language that is so significant to their backgrounds and traditions. When I traveled to Europe, my ability to speak Spanish allowed for a valuable experience that was definitely enhanced by being able to communicate with most of the residents. Even when I reached countries that did not speak a similar language, such as France, it was still easier for me to learn the fundamentals of the language since I already had experience with two others, thus making learning the basics of another language much simpler in my mind.
Unfortunately, there is a general belief that learning another language is pointless if one does not seem to immediately benefit from it at that specific time. For instance, Abbey Burke, a freshman zoology major, expressed her frustration in high school Spanish class: “I would sit in class and think, ‘when will I ever use this?’ I wasn’t planning on going to a country that speaks Spanish anytime soon!” In reality, no one has his or her future completely planned out. One may never know whether their future plans do involve going to or coming in contact with someone from a country that speaks this specific language. Also, what people fail to realize is that, as I previously mentioned, learning a second language allows for an easier introduction into the fundamentals of a third, fourth, and even fifth language. Many people wonder how another person can know how to speak a ridiculous number of languages while they themselves can barely pass their 10th grade French class. The reason is that, once one becomes aware of and begins to appreciate how vocabulary and grammar is structured, these refined abilities can be applied to other languages,
causing a greater ability to learn this language in half of the time it took to learn their second language. This not only benefits travel, but also creates a potentially useful asset for employment. There is no doubt that various businesses specifically seek out those who speak at least two languages, therefore putting a multilingual individual at a much greater advantage compared to their competition.
It is relatively easy to think of practical reasons to learn another language. But there are also numerous studies that indicate scientific advantages to being bilingual. For many years, people believed that knowing more than one language actually hindered an individual’s cognitive ability and considered this second language to be an interference within the brain. This idea is not incorrect: even when a person is speaking one language, the other is still present in the brain and may actually obstruct the other. This is why so many bilingual individuals will find themselves speaking a mixture of both, such as “Spanglish.” However, this is not a negative occurrence. In fact, it is proven to make an individual smarter. When one language system attempts to overpower the other, the brain is compelled to resolve internal conflict, thus strengthening cognitive function and problem-solving abilities. In 2004, psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee studied bilingual and monolingual preschoolers and their ability to solve problems and puzzles. They concluded that the bilingual preschoolers were able to solve the given problems much better and more efficiently than monolingual students. This study, along with several others, suggests that being bilingual enhances the command system of the brain that directs our attention when we perform certain mentally demanding tasks. These include staying focused and ignoring distractions, multitasking, and remembering information such as the arrangements of directions while driving. This can be extremely helpful, especially in a working environment that is prone to distractions and loud noises. Furthermore, bilingualism continues to have cognitive advantages even in old age: it has been shown that the ability to speak more than one language can shield a person against Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia. So, being bilingual not only has profound social effects that can improve a person’s future, but it also strengthens the brain and essentially makes a person smarter compared to someone who is simply monolingual.
The list of reasons to learn a second language can almost go on forever. There truly are very little, if any, disadvantages to being bilingual or multilingual. People often complain about the limitations of time and how their hectic lives cannot bear the challenging demands of having to learn another language. But, as Kayla Sanchez, an English major with a minor in Spanish, eloquently puts it: “If you have time to watch television for four hours when you get home from work, you can dedicate 45 minutes a day to a language that can do wonders for your future.” The benefits that one holds from being bilingual help make up for the time that it takes to learn and study it. It isn’t too hard to plan how you will learn it: take a class, buy a language software, befriend someone who speaks this language, or, probably the fastest way to learn, take a trip to a country where it is the native tongue. No matter the avenue you choose to pursue, once you learn the language and practice it constantly, there will be no regret whatsoever. Never underestimate the power of language and communication – they will open your world to endless possibilities that are just waiting to be explored.