The benefits of learning more than one language

Dave Barry, Pulitzer Prize winning American author and columnist, stated in 1991 that: “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages”.

Behind Mr. Barry’s satire is a common yet hidden thought among many Americans; “Why bother to learn another language when our economy is the drive of the world and English is the most used language in economic and commercial transactions across the globe?.”

It is hard to know the exact number of people in the world who have an ability to speak more than one language, as there are no reliable global studies. But in 2012, a Eurobarometer survey established that just over half of Europeans (54%) are bilingual, and other studies hypothesize that more than half of the world population uses two or more languages every day. The pervasive presence of bilingualism shows that humans can learn two languages without apparent difficulty.

However, in the United States, bilingualism is often associated with low socioeconomic status, as can be appreciated by the fact that legislation referring to bilingual education used to be included in a Federal program for disadvantaged students. But interest in other languages and cultures is emerging. For some people, interested arose after major events that presented immediate and direct threats to the country’s future[1]. For others, the interest arose hand in hand with the increase of globalization where interactions between countries are closer than ever and they are not only limited to trade, but to politics, to social issues, to scientific collaborations, to music, culture, cuisine.

The ability of a citizenry to speak multiple languages provides a comparative advantage in our globalizing world.  This is because learning a new language is not only a means to improving communication, but more importantly it is a way to promote global understanding. In order to keep its global competitiveness, the United States should raise more educated and multilingual children.



In an interconnected and rapidly changing world, many believe that America’s prosperity and economic strength depends on its students mastering a language other than English.  Consequently, the government, both state and federal, are paving the way to get a multilingual workforce which will enhance their competitiveness in the future. One of the most well-known examples is the 1 Million Strong initiative, endorsed by the US and Chinese governments, whose goal is to expand the number of US students studying Mandarin to 1 million by 2020.  Additionally, some states are now investing heavily in dual immersion programs[2] with one major purpose: to increase their multilingual workforce so to attract new businesses to their states. New York is currently developing 40 new language-immersion programs in its school system. Montana, Delaware, Oregon, Washington, California, Texas and Utah are investing heavily in dual immersion programs. In the case of Utah, its Governor, Gary Herbert, set a target in 2010 for the development of 100 programs in intensive dual-language immersion programs serving 25,000 students by 2015. Utah met that goal two years ago, and the brisk pace continues with the launch of additional programs.

It is clear that there is a growing understanding that multilingualism is a key to future success. Last December 14, 2015, the Senate Education Committee favorably reported Senate Bill No. 3279 that establishes the State Seal of Biliteracy, a recognition for high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing in one or more world languages in addition to English. The purposes of the State seal are to: encourage students to study languages and promote foreign language instruction in public schools; certify attainment of biliteracy; provide employers with a method of identifying people with language skills; provide colleges and universities with a method to recognize and award academic credits to applicants seeking admission; prepare students with 21st century skills; and affirm the value of diversity and honor multiple cultures.

One month later, the New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, signed the State Seal of Biliteracy into law. New Jersey is now the 14th state to adopt it, and it is under consideration in a half-dozen more states.


In most school systems, foreign language is taken in high school, with many schools requiring one to three years of foreign language in order to graduate. In some school systems, foreign language is also taught during middle school, and recently, many elementary schools have begun teaching foreign languages as well. While this certainly signifies progress, there is much more to be done. According to the scientific community, second language acquisition should start much earlier.

Almost all human beings acquire a language (and sometimes more than one), to the level of native competency, before age 5. That is because we are all born with an innate biological ability for understanding the principles of organization common to all languages. Furthermore, according to research performed at the University of Washington, language has a critical period of learning. Babies and children are linguistic geniuses until they turn 7 where there is a systematic decline. The graph shown below is indisputable by scientists but there is no common explanation of this phenomena.

Relationship between age of learning of a second language and language skills

bilngual children

 Source: Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington



  1. Better job opportunities

We have to stop thinking that speaking a foreign language is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have asset.

We live in a competitive world where competition for jobs is increasingly fierce. Not only that, the world is more interconnected than ever and therefore, learning languages is crucial. In fact it’s vital. It is no longer an advantage for a job seeker to speak just one non-native language. Rather, it now could be a drawback for a job seeker to only speak one language. Here there are some eye opening facts:

  • At the end of 2013, CNN Money published that the hottest job skill is being fluent in a foreign language.
  • The Department of Labor estimates a 42% increase in jobs for translators and interpreters between 2010 and 2020.
  • According to, employers may pay between 5-20% more than the base rate to hires with language skills
  • America’s $15-billion, high-tech STEM[3] industry depends on languages to reach foreign markets worth $1.5 trillion.

In the public sector, more than one quarter of the “State Department’s language-designated positions” could not be filled with fully qualified personnel in 2012. Similarly, only 28% of language designated positions in the Department of Defense were filled with personnel who met the proficiency level requirements. U.S. Army soldiers can earn up to $1,000 extra per month by demonstrating proficiency in multiple languages

In the private sector, companies targeting global audiences are seeking bilingual employees to broaden their reach. In New Jersey in particular, there is an increasing demand from employers for candidates who speak world languages. In 2014, jobs for bilingual workers represented at least 1 in 5 online job postings at many of New Jersey’s top employers[4].  New Jersey’s key industries (including Finance and Insurance, Health Care and Social Assistance, and Educational Services) accounted for 3,552 online job postings for bilingual candidates in 2014. Finally, from 2010 to 2014, industries that require high levels of service and communication also show increased demand for bilingual job candidates.

In summary, learning a foreign language makes students more marketable, opens the door for higher pay, and prepares them to join the global workforce.

  1. More global understanding

“To have another language is to possess a second soul” – Charlemagne

Thomas Jefferson is probably one of the best examples of a multilingual American. “I read Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and English of course, with something of its radix the Anglo-Saxon.” In addition to the languages he lists, there is some evidence that Jefferson was attempting German. The third president of United States knew the importance to learn other languages and cultures for political reasons.

Language learning is not only a means of improved communication, but more importantly it plays a key role in promoting global understanding and respecting cultural differences.  Language exposes students to another culture, sparking curiosity, empathy and understanding. And these qualities prepare students to interact with people of all ethnicities and backgrounds.

Learning a language is a double win. As brilliant translator Michael Hofmann explains well, “to speak a single language is to be enclosed in one cultural possibility – to be preordained to live in the linguistic and cultural cage into which you are born. If you don’t have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases all your life,” he wrote. “It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself in just one language. It’s harder to play.” To acquire another language is to open yourself up to the world and to increase vastly your employability.

  1. Better cognitive abilities

On the classic TV show “I Love Lucy,” Ricky Ricardo was known for switching into rapid-fire Spanish whenever he was upset, despite the fact Lucy had no idea what her Cuban husband was saying. These scenes were comedy gold, but they also provided a relatable portrayal of the linguistic phenomenon of code-switching.

Code-switching requires a great brain effort. It means that the brain has to discriminate selectively one language as you speak the other, when it is known that both languages are active all the time. It requires a great amount of processing functions in our brains.

There is enough experimental evidence to state that children mastering in more than one language face higher brain processing demands that lead to an increase in brain activity. This increase improves their “brain’s executive function”, the system we use for problem solving, planning, flexible switching, focusing, multi-tasking, inhibitory control, etc. This means that children with a high command of a second language improve their ability to adjust to changes in demands or priorities and switch between goals, increase memory and concentration skills, among others.

Metalinguistic ability is also improved though the acquisition of a second language. This ability allows children to see through the meaning of language to its underlying structure. With metalinguistic ability, children can analyze linguistic representations to extract general grammatical rules and state them explicitly, and control attention to different aspects of a sentence or a word such as its form or its meaning. Of the different metalinguistic abilities, phonological awareness has received most attention. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate linguistic sounds separate from their meanings and has been shown to have a significant contribution to children learning to read.

People who speak two languages have also been shown to have more efficient monitoring systems. According to a study performed by the University of Maryland in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania and Barcelona, monolinguals and bilinguals respond similarly when the brain’s monitoring system is not taxed, but in conditions requiring high monitoring demands, bilinguals were faster. Bilingual people also outperform monolingual people in spatial working memory tasks.

Studies indicates too that early exposure (before the age of 3) to different languages continues to influence neural processing later in life even after the language is no longer used. Another study by Susan E. Carey, Harvard University, shows that better cognitive development is gained as early as in 7 month old bilingual infants.

Studies also indicate a relationship between language study and basic skills development, including listening and reading. Moreover, there is a correlation between years of language study and SAT scores. And not just on the verbal section. On average, students with four years of foreign language study outscored other students by more than 100 points on the verbal and math sections.

  1. Bilingual people are healthier

We all know that taking part in stimulating physical or mental activity can help maintain cognitive function. It turns out that learning a second language has long lasting cognitive benefits even if it is learnt later in life. It promotes the maintenance of white matter[5] integrity and increases the grey matter[6]. In fact, the higher command in a second language, the better for the brain; the effects of long-life bilingualism on neural circuitry have been shown to promote cognitive reserve[7] in elderly people. As a result, elderly bilinguals outperform monolinguals in executive control tasks.

Furthermore, the ability to speak more than one language helps to delay behavioral symptoms associated with neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia. In particular, the estimated age of onset of Alzheimer’s and the age of the first medical appointment related to symptoms associated with dementia are about 4–5 years later in proficient bilinguals than in monolinguals. This is not to say that mastering at a second language protects against the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Rather, the symptoms associated with such diseases may be delayed in people able to speak more than one language because of the presence of greater cognitive reserve caused by the bilingual experience.

A newer study published by the American Heart Association revealed the people who speak two or more languages are twice as likely to have normal cognition after strokes as those who speak only one.



Language competencies are increasingly important. In this time of globalization, language learning is central to politics, economics, history, and most obviously education.

Marty Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says the U.S. is still far behind other developed countries in producing a multilingual workforce, due to “the Anglophone factor and Americans believing that English is good enough to get along.” However, more and more public institutions, including State and Federal Governments, are acting in response to this interconnected and rapidly changing world by investing in dual immersion programs. They know that competition is not local any more, and in order to compete globally, the U.S. needs a globally prepared workforce.  Moreover, it´s not only about economy. America’s language deficit limits the nation’s ability to coordinate with countries on trade, development, disaster relief, global security, and beyond.

Regarding New Jersey, its demand for bilingual talent is on the rise due to the increasing need to communicate with a diverse customer base, and with operations and competitors overseas.

But learning a second language provides far more than professional opportunities. It develops better social and communicative skills and a deeper knowledge of the world.

Furthermore learning a second language is mental exercise. And there is sufficient experimental evidence supporting the notion that bilingualism/learning a second language improves cognitive abilities beyond language processing, especially on those involved in executive control, outperforming monolinguals in a variety of tasks such as problem solving, planning, flexible switching, focusing, multi-tasking, and inhibitory control. This boost in executive control abilities, which affect cognitive development as early as 7 months-old, continues throughout the life span, possibly enhancing cognitive reserve in the elderly delaying the onset of diseases like dementia and helping better recovery from strokes.



The Benefits of Second Language Study

Bilingual. F François Grosjean. Harvard University Press, 2010.

How does the bilingual experience sculpt the brain? Albert Costa and Núria Sebastián-Gallés. Center for Brain and Cognition, Department of Technology, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, Spain.

The bilingual advantage: Conflict monitoring, cognitive control, and garden-path recovery

Susan Teubner-Rhodes, Alan Mishler, Ryan Corbett and Jared Novick. University of Maryland

Llorenç Barrachina, Monica SanzTorrent. University of Barcelona

John Trueswell, University of Pennsylvania

-SENATE, No. 3279


-Language Diversity & The Workforce. The Growing Need for Bilingual Workers in New Jersey’s Economy

-Putting the FL in STEM: the Link Between Foreign Languages and the STEM Fields– Dr. Bill Rivers is the Executive Director for the Joint National Committee for Languages – National Council for Language and International Studies, and a leader in U.S. language policy development.

-Innate Ability for Language Acquisition

-The linguistic genius of babies


-Social cogniticion in the early years. Andre N. Meltozoff. Life Center. University of Washington.

-The Development of Language: A Critical Period in Humans

-Why do we continue to isolate ourselves by only speaking English?

To speak another language isn’t just cultured, it’s a blow against stupidity. Michael Hofmann

-Languages in a Global World. Learning for Better Cultural Understanding

Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants

-The 100,000 Strong Foundation

-The Economic Imperative of Bilingual Education

-The hottest job skill is…  Fluency in a foreign language. CNN Money

-Government has foreign language deficit. The Washington Post.

-5 ways bilingualism can enhance your career

-Bilingual brain better protected against a stroke

-Europeans and their languages

-Speaking multiple languages can influence children’s emotional development

-Does being bilingual make you smarter?

-Bilingual brain better protected against a stroke

-Lifelong bilingualism maintains white matter integrity in older adults.

-Bilingual toddlers better at solving certain problems

-People who speak two languages have more efficient brains, study says


[1] The events of September 11, 2001 compelled the federal government to reflect on the expertise of its personnel and to focus attention on the need for more and better language skills, particularly in certain languages considered critical

[2] Dual immersion programs are programs where students spend 50% of the day receiving instruction in English with one teacher and 50% of the day with another teacher instructing in the minority language. With this model, students learn a second language at the same time as standard subjects like science, math and social studies.


[3] Science, technology, engineering, and math.

[4] Bank of America (19.9% of its job postings in 2014), H&R Block (22.3%), State Farm Insurance Companies (24.5%), Rent-A-Center (24.1%), and Crossmark, Inc. (21.5%).

[5] White matter is a component of the central nervous system which actively affects how the brain learns and functions.

[6] Grey matter is another major component of the central nervous system.

[7] Cognitive reserve refers to the resistance of certain aspects of cognition to brain damage.  Cognitive reserve appears to be related, among others, with environmental factors such as lifestyle and education.

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