The overstated advantage of bilingualism

We all have that friend who can speak a bit of French. Always showing off, yakking about the many cognitive, neurological, and educational benefits of bilingualism. You roll your eyes discreetly, yet can’t help but wonder whether any of it is true. Is bilingualism genuinely beneficial?

Whilst there are many somewhat obvious benefits to bilingualism, possibly the most relevant one today is its usefulness in our globalized world. We live in a society that is becoming increasingly connected, which has led to a need for bilinguals who can bridge language barriers. Companies want to appeal to customers all around the world, and bilingual workers can help them do so. According to a report by New American Economy, the number of online job postings searching for bilingual workers almost tripled between 2010 and 2015, with these companies ranging from banks to healthcare firms. Bilinguals have a clear benefit when looking for a job, as they have one more advantage on their C.V. that can set them apart in a sea of other candidates.

However, there are other, simpler benefits to bilingualism that make everyday life easier. The most common example of this is travel. You can’t deny that being able to speak the language that surrounds you is hugely useful, and sometimes desperately necessary. There’s an anecdote about a Pole who was visiting Mexico and buying sunglasses. The vendor offered an exorbitant price. Then the Pole started bargaining in perfect Spanish and the price was magically halved.

Yet the benefits extend beyond saving money – in fact, it can be a source of pleasure. All bilinguals will know the satisfaction of eavesdropping on a conversation of some unsuspecting foreigners who are complaining about the “rudeness” of the passers-by; or, the comfort when helping a confused foreigner with directions. And an important disregarded aspect is the appreciation of language you gain when you’re multilingual. You truly acquire an enjoyment not only of speaking, yet also the etymology of, and surprising links between, different languages.

One benefit that appears far later in life is the apparent resistance to dementia. As a fascinating study by Ellen Bialystok, the most prominent researcher in the study of the effect of bilingualism on the brain, concludes: “The bilinguals showed symptoms of dementia 4 years later than monolinguals”. The premise is that using multiple languages keeps the brain active and nimble, similar to solving crossword puzzles. This strengthens the brain, which can ward off or delay dementia. This is a major benefit that in and of itself should push people to learn additional languages as early as possible.

You truly acquire an enjoyment not only of speaking, yet also the etymology of, and surprising links between, different languages.

Now comes the benefit that I find must be taken with a grain of salt: that bilingualism can make you smarter. You’ve most likely heard of the abundance of recent research supporting the idea of a “bilingual advantage”. Such research claims that both languages are active in the brain even when speaking only one. This causes the brain to resolve a conflict between two languages, which reinforces its strength. A bilingual can therefore manage their brain and gain enhanced executive control, which allows them to mentally “organise” stimuli by importance. This might explain why bilingual children were found to resolve conflicts between shape and colour faster than monolinguals in another study by Bialystok. The bilinguals can ignore the useless information and focus entirely on the important elements. However, bilinguals were also found to be far more efficient with tasks that have no need for the suppression of stimuli, such as memory and thought. Why is that?

Bilinguals are constantly internally verifying which language to use, which leads to “a heightened ability to monitor the environment”, as an article from the New York Times states. This ability is subconsciously used in everyday life for many activities, such as cooking, driving, and communicating.

You may be wondering why I named this article as I did, after having described with such precision the many benefits of bilingualism. Well, there are many disadvantages that are frequently overlooked. I’m not talking about people constantly asking you to translate for them, or the mocking looks of disappointment you receive when you simply forget a word. I’m not even referring to the assumed arrogance certain people see in you for merely using your other language in their presence. No, I’m talking about the false or unverified information that has been published. The “bilingual advantage” may not exist.

Their total vocabulary library is larger, so finding a single book takes longer.

Angela de Bruin, a bilingual speaker and student of linguistics and neuroscience, originally believed there was an important link between cognitive ability and bilingualism, so she attempted to verify this. She performed four tests in which the participants had to resolve a conflict, for example between shape and colour. The bilinguals had no advantage in three of the tests, which led to her doubting existing research. She started to observe the conferences and publications in this field, believing there was a bias towards publishing studies refuting this idea. Her findings show that at conferences, where researchers express their initial thoughts, the results were split approximately evenly between those that supported and those that opposed the idea. However, when published, the studies that supported the bilingual advantage were far more common in scientific journals than those that denied it. This demonstrates that the media has “a distorted image of the actual study outcomes of bilingualism, […] believing that the positive effect of bilingualism on non-linguistic cognitive processes is strong and unchallenged”, as de Bruin believes.

The disadvantages are far greater than simple misrepresentation in the media. De Bruin continued her research, searching to determine what bilingualism actually affects. She performed four different tests, only two of which involved resolving conflict with the others involving focus or problem-solving. There was no difference found, except in one of the tests to resolve conflict. The bilinguals were faster. Yet when the conflict was removed, they were slower.

Disadvantages were even found in linguistic ability. Bilinguals were found to have a smaller vocabulary in both of their respective languages than monolinguals. They also had greater difficulty in finding words in either language. Their total vocabulary library is larger, so finding a single book takes longer. Bialystok has also studied the negative impacts of bilingualism, but the media rarely observes it.

This does not mean that the bilingual advantage does not exist or that you should never learn another language. It simply means you should be wary of what the media tells you, as there is no clear, accepted belief about bilingualism.

With the advance of technology, learning other languages may become less useful, counterintuitively. That may not be a positive change, as it could lead to certain languages and their respective cultures gradually disappearing. However, I still believe that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. So, go learn another language. It may save you from having to do the crossword in thirty years, and it truly is enjoyable.

Image credit: ricardo on Flickr.

Image description: Some globes of the world on display at a National Geographic store.