“Not only are bilingual young adults more likely to graduate high school and go to college, they are also more likely to get the job when they interview. Even when being bilingual is not a requirement, an interview study of California employers shows that employers prefer to both hire and retain bilinguals.”
—Rebecca Callahan, Associate Professor of Bilingual/Bicultural Education, University of Texas at Austin
Those of us who have worked in and around international education think that learning more than one language is good for people. We think it helps open up the mind to other possibilities, other cultural points of view. We also believe that the “code switching” involved in speaking multiple languages helps develop skills that are useful in social situations and beneficial in keeping the mind sharp.
However, for years no data existed that supported the benefits of being bilingual. And for a long time in many US educational settings, children who did not speak English as their first language were not encouraged to keep their bilingualism. Why would you need a second language when you learned English? The benefits of being able to speak more than one language were not generally recognized in the US.
I was excited to read about some new research by Rebecca Callahan, Associate Professor of Bilingual/Bicultural Education, University of Texas at Austin. In a recent article in Quartz, she writes: “Speaking more than one language may confer significant benefits on the developing brain. Research has now shown that bilingual young adults not only fare better in the job market, but are also more likely to demonstrate empathy and problem-solving skills.”
What does this mean? For study-abroad students, it might encourage them to know that the effort spent in learning and using another language has long-term economic benefits—you are more marketable! This is, of course, in addition to the eye-opening, mind-expanding, life-altering experience of living in a culture different from your own.
For children of immigrants and refugees, it means that making an effort to retain their parents’ native language is beneficial. In reality, many immigrant and refugee children in the US serve as interpreters and cultural bridges from an early age. They are forced to be bilingual—learning English to be successful in the school system, while speaking another language at home. I remember one Cambodian mother telling me, through her son, that if she learned to speak English, her son would forget how to speak Cambodian now that he was here in the US.
“Currently, researchers have begun to use data-sets that include more sensitive measures of language proficiency to find that among children of immigrant parents, bilingual-biliterate young adults land in higher status jobs and earn more than their peers who have lost their home language.
Not only have these now-monolingual young adults lost the cognitive resources bilingualism provides, but they are less likely to be employed full-time, and earn less than their peers.”
For many in the US educational system, acquiring a second or third language is not as highly valued as it is in many other parts of the world. I am always impressed (and a bit jealous) when I am around people who can switch among languages—often because they were required or encouraged to learn multiple languages when they were in school. And for a nation of immigrants, it seems strange that only one-in-four US American adults are conversationally proficient in another language, according to a recent Gallup poll. It reminds me of the old joke, so true that it is embarrassing:
Question: What do you call a person who speaks four languages?
Question: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
Question: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
Question: What do you call a person who speaks one language?
Answer: An American!
Of course, this challenge isn’t just limited to US Americans. In an article last year in The Guardian, Vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Leszek Borysiewicz, pointed out that one in six children in English primary school do not have English as their first language. He noted that their first languages:
“…are real languages: living languages that give people a huge insight into culture and give the children who can speak them additional opportunities.
Isn’t that what education is about – enabling every child to achieve the maximum potential? What I’d love to see is an emphasis that this is an added value that that child has, a talent, and we should aspire to allow other children who may be monolingual to strive to become as bilingual as they possibly can be.”
An article about a study conducted by researchers at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, indicates that merely knowing a second language can result in higher earnings. The researchers say that the results of their study, published in the journal Canadian Public Policy/Analyse de Politiques, has implications for bilingual policy in Canada:
“Efforts to promote French in the ROC [rest of Canada] should be continued, not so much because of the earnings advantage that bilingualism confers, but because it results in many social/cultural/political benefits, strengthening the fabric of Canadian society and serving as an example to countries torn by ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions.”
The cultural flexibility inherent in knowing two languages is a valuable ability and a resource to be cherished. If we are to move toward intercultural competence, we need the ability to think outside of our cultural box and explore other ways of seeing the world.
That is what we try to do with our Cultural Detective packages—provide insight into another view of the world, a small glimpse into a different cultural reality, a chance to perhaps understand, just a little, how others see us, and how to work together more effectively.