Multilingualism: an overlooked gift The advantages of a second language

Speaking two languages can have more advantages than you thought.
The author of this article, Jessica Beard, 16, tells us more.

Strolling over to a cash register I notice a cashier and a customer standing face to face in silence, gesturing wildly at one another.

Apparently their communication is impaired by the lack of a common language. This is my time to shine: as I am fluent in both languages, I help resolve the confusion easily with no great effort. I casually walk out of the shop with a smug feeling in the pit of my stomach.

In most countries, the bilingual community is in a minority; although as you walk through the streets of most Swiss cities you will overhear a magnificently wide range of languages, each language adding to the rich buzz created by the crowd.

I am an English student in a French school on the border of Switzerland, and have many bilingual friends. We love to sit eating lunch together, where we will happily mix English and French, constructing our sentences with words from both languages – talking our own Franglais. However, mid-conversation my friends will then pass on to German or Turkish, leaving me clueless as to what they are saying.

I am able to detect various words from their cocktail of languages, but being suddenly limited with my two languages, I feel rather inferior to them. Living in Switzerland as a bilingual individual you are therefore less likely to feel special and out of the ordinary, as many people speak not only two but several languages. Often unnoticed, the benefits can be experienced on many levels.

The obvious advantage of bilingualism is the potential to process two languages, and alternate between them in daily life. According to a recent scientific study*, bilingualism has been proven to help stall certain diseases, with one in particular being Alzheimer's.

The study asserted that although bilingualism does not entirely protect a person from developing Alzheimer's, it does delay the symptoms by an average of five to six years.

Bilingualism: a gateway to multitasking

It is also said that multilingualism enables a higher potential for multi-tasking. Indeed, research shows that people who speak more than one language have learned to process and pick out essential information on a greater scale than monolingual individuals.

They are also used to dealing with multiple cases simultaneously: when a bilingual person is speaking, the other language is present and active in their mind, ready for use if necessary. The brain must then filter which language is which and the one they need to use, based on their audience and current environment.

This is said to be where a part of the brain's cognitive system is engaged: a system that is used far more often when a person is bilingual. They therefore have a great ability to deal with problems, as well as an innate understanding of the grammar and structure of language.

An interesting insight on two cultures

When I questioned a girl speaking fluent English, French and Russian, she told me this ability has helped her acquire a global view of the world, because the many people you meet teach you so much.

They often have a better understanding of diverse societies, and can adapt easily to different environments. As a multi-linguist, she said she often has at least one language in common with the people she meets. It is therefore much easier to feel included among strangers.

She felt her familiarity with two alphabets also allowed her to understand the widely different mechanisms in each language. As she explained:

"Growing up with more than one language, but keeping a mother tongue from a different country such as Russia, allows you to hold on to the roots of your community while still appreciating and feeling at home, whatever environment you find yourself in."


*Research conducted by Ellen Bialystok.


Jessica Beard is a 16-year-old English student currently attending the Lycée International de Ferney-Voltaire. She has lived in France near the Swiss border since the age of three. She hopes to go to University in 2012 to pursue a career in Journalism or Politics. She loves drawing and sports.

Contributed by Jessica Beard


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