Monolingualism, speaking only one language, is not the norm for most of the world. Many countries have multiple official languages, and there are many places where it is common to know the language of your village, the common language (or “lingua franca”, as we linguists call it) of your area and an official language of your country.
In the western world, however, especially the English-speaking world, there are many people who only know one language. You might have learned one or even multiple languages at school, but many people don’t speak them well or forget them because they rarely use them. However, there are many reasons why you should learn a second language.
The first one is obviously communication. Learning a second language can help you communicate with other people around the world, and learn about their culture. It can help you to talk to people with an immigrant background, it can help you to communicate better while on holiday in another country, or it can help you to connect with family members who speak another language than you. I think communication is one of the main motivations for people to learn another language.
But did you know being bilingual can also improve certain cognitive skills? There is scientific evidence that bilinguals are better at executive function. Executive function refers to cognitive skills such as controlling and shifting attention, planning things and problem solving. But they are also better at things like mental flexibility and thinking outside of the box.
Bilinguals also have better metalinguistic awareness, which means they are more aware of how language works and are better at things like generalizing grammar rules. This is what also makes it easier to learn even more languages. Research suggests that having experience with language learning and having knowledge of other languages helps to learn another language quicker, especially when the language you’re learning has some similarity to one you already know.
Although most of these advantages have been researched in early bilinguals, people who are bilingual since childhood, there is some evidence that this also applies to people who become bilingual later in life – although there seem to be some small differences. But what seems to matter the most when it comes to these advantages is both proficiency and how often you use the language, not the age at which you start learning a language.
However, if you start learning a language in childhood it is easier to reach a native level. There is said to be a critical period after which you lose the ability to learn a language in the same way you learn your native language. Some researchers say this is as early as 5 years old, some say around puberty. This doesn’t mean you can’t be fluent after this period though – and you don’t have to speak on a native level to call yourself bilingual! Sure, you might always have a bit of an accent, but that has nothing to do with how well you speak the language.
Still, it’s important to remember that becoming fluent takes time. Don’t feel like you need to rush yourself to speak grammatically correct sentences. Once you have some basic knowledge, take your time to immerse yourself in your goal language as much as possible. The best way to do that is of course to practice with native speakers. But another great tip is to start watching tv shows and movies, listen to music and read books in the language you’re learning – especially children’s tv shows and books are a great way to start. I personally started learning English when I was 8, but I didn’t become fluent until I started consciously listening to English music and watching English tv shows.
In the end, if you are going to learn a second language (or third, or fourth…) one of the most important factors in whether you’ll succeed is motivation. If you’re forced to learn a language at school you don’t want to speak, it is likely you won’t be very good at it. Based on your school experiences, you might even think you’re bad at languages. But if you choose a language you actually want to learn, chances are it will be much easier. Online methods that use gamification or practicing with native speakers might also be more your thing than textbooks.
So what are you waiting for? Go learn that language you have always wanted to speak. And if you don’t know where to start, I have got you covered: I have reviewed some of the most popular language apps here.
Bartolotti, J., & Marian, V. (2017). Bilinguals’ existing languages benefit vocabulary learning in a third language. Language learning, 67(1), 110-140.
Goodridge, P. (2017). Second-language acquisition and motivation: A literature review. Pursuit-The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee, 8(1), 8.
Harley, T.A. (2010). Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science. Psychology Press.
Hoff, E. (2013). Language development. Cengage Learning.
Jessner, U. (1999). Metalinguistic awareness in multilinguals: Cognitive aspects of third language learning. Language awareness, 8(3-4), 201-209.
Pelham, S.D., & Abrams, L. (2014). Cognitive advantages and disadvantages in early and late bilinguals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(2), 313.
2 thoughts on “Why you should learn a second language (and other facts about being bilingual)”
I learn’t a lot about the bilingual advantage in my Psychology degree it’s so interesting! What languages do you speak? I tried to practiced my French more and I’m going to try to get back into it. Love the idea of watching more French films thank you fo the tip!
It really is interesting! Bilingualism and language acquisition were the things I was most interested in during my linguistics degree 🙂
My native language is Dutch and I speak English fluently. I took German and French in school so I can understand German quite well and French to some degree. I also know some Swedish (have been learning it on Duolingo for a while now) and some really basic Spanish. Sounds like a lot, but it’s mostly just passive knowledge. Actually speaking those languages myself is quite another story!
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