As a Girl Scout, I learned a song that you may also have learned. “Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.”
The lesson of that song also applies to the role of languages in our lives. “Learn a new language, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.” Even better, learning languages isn’t like lining up silver coins beside gold ones, with spaces between them. The new and old languages interact; they can strengthen and enrich each other, creating knowledge and skill that go beyond the simple fact of knowing more words.
Bilingualism – the ability to use more than one language – has been found to bring benefits throughout our lives. Some of those benefits are obvious, but others are more subtle and unexpected. As teachers of English, we sometimes need to be reminded that we are not only helping students become proficient in English, we are also helping them become bilingual, adding English language knowledge to the knowledge of the language they already have already acquired at home, at school, or in their community. In some contexts, of course, English will be students’ third or fourth language.
Bilingualism is more than just a personal benefit. Bilinguals can positively affect their community because of their ability to engage more easily with members of different linguistic and cultural groups. Knowing and using more than one language can promote empathy, allowing us to see and interpret the world from another person’s perspective.
There may even be some health benefits to learning and using more than one language.
As bilinguals, we may enjoy the cultural enrichment that comes from being able to read literature or watch films in the original language. In addition, we may get more from travel when we are able to understand local languages. Other personal benefits include the value of maintaining connections with family members of an older generation who speak only the language of their cultural heritage.
Economic benefits of bilingualism have been found not only for individuals who leave their country of origin and migrate to another country to find work. Even individuals who have been brought up in wealthy countries and who speak a powerful world language such as English or French have been found to have greater earning potential when they are able to use additional languages.
Researchers have found that bilingualism is related to cognitive benefits across the lifespan. Young bilinguals show greater mental flexibility and creativity in problem-solving than children who speak only one language. Bilingual children develop metalinguistic awareness at an earlier age, coming to understand, for example, that the name of an object is not part of the object itself but rather a label that we can choose to change. The experience of regularly using more than one language also appears to enhance children’s ability to shift attention from one task to another.
The possibility that bilingualism entails health benefits may seem farfetched, but language skill may be related to health in several ways. It is clear that if we are away from our home community, knowing a local language can be crucial for getting information about local health concerns, reading labels on medicines, or understanding a doctor’s instructions. More surprising, perhaps, is evidence that in elderly bilinguals, symptoms of dementia may manifest themselves later than for monolinguals with similar medical conditions.
Oh, and one more thing. Some research shows that in order to get the greatest benefit from becoming bilingual, it’s necessary to achieve a certain threshold of proficiency. The exact level of proficiency has not been defined but the evidence suggests that while there are personal and social benefits to learning even “a little bit” of a new language—enough to facilitate travel or to read a newspaper with the help of a dictionary, for example—the most significant benefits come to those who have developed higher levels of proficiency. Related research shows that the strengthening and continued growth of a person’s first language supports the acquisition of a new language. As with keeping “old friends”, it seems that the experience of maintaining and strengthening our first language makes us better at adding new ones.
Patsy ran a webinar on this topic for OUP’s free English Language Teaching Online Conference in March 2019. Click the button below to watch the full recording.
Note: Among the researchers whose work we will draw on in this webinar are Jim Cummins, Wallace Lambert, Ofelia García, Ellen Bialystok, Colin Baker, Vivian Cook, Fred Genesee, and Lily Wong Fillmore.
Patsy M. Lightbown is Distinguished Professor Emerita (Applied Linguistics) at Concordia University in Montreal. Since the 1970s, her research has focused on the importance of time in second language learning and on the complementary roles of meaning-focused and language-focused activities. She has studied the acquisition of French, English, and Spanish in classrooms in Canada and the US. Her 2014 book Focus on Content-Based Language Teaching appears in an Oxford University Press series that she co-edits with Nina Spada, with whom she co-authored How Languages Are Learned (OUP), an award-winning introduction to second language acquisition research for teachers, now in its fourth edition.