In my family, everyone speaks at least three languages, so I grew up in a house full of languages. Beyond my home, growing up in a multicultural part of Los Angeles, I was also constantly surrounded by different languages. This exposure to different languages has been a major influence in my life and as I grew older and studied more languages it was like opening up a special kaleidoscope window into the world that I wish everyone could look through. Now that I have my own child, it is all the more important to me to raise my son knowing and appreciating different languages. While I think most of us are aware of the general benefits of knowing at least a second language, I wanted to dive into this, as well as add my personal experience and perspective on being a polyglot.
My brother and I were raised speaking and understanding both English and Mandarin, but our parents and other relatives also spoke Taiwanese. While Taiwanese is a dialect of Chinese, it is not mutually comprehensible with Mandarin. That's the strange and interesting thing about Chinese dialects in general. None of them are mutually comprehensible. It's not like Spanish and French that are different languages but very relatable and if you know one it's not so difficult to understand parts of the other. Even with Polish and Russian, while they use different alphabets, I have found that sometimes when I hear Polish, I can understand bits and pieces because I understand Russian. I actually never thought of it until now, but it's interesting to me that while Taiwanese was commonly spoken in the house, we didn't learn or pick up on it. It was like our parents' secret code language.
On top of the two Chinese dialects we were surrounded by, our grandmothers also spoke Japanese, because they grew up under Japanese occupation until the end of WWII. We didn't really learn Japanese either, but we picked up a few phrases here and there. One of my grandmothers is a karaoke queen and she oft sang Japanese songs, so along with your basic phrases like "hello" and "thank you," I also know how to say "pigeon" in Japanese.
And while I learned most of my Spanish in school, listening to Selena, and speaking with friends or whomever would speak with me in Spanish, my brother and I were exposed to it early on, because our nanny was Mexican. In fact, my brother's first word was "agua." Even just the exposure of all these different languages has had so many positive effects on our minds, and here are some of them:
1. Cultural Understanding
One of the most obvious benefits of being multilingual is how it broadens and deepens our understanding of other cultures. In a globalized world, this is invaluable on so many levels. It helps you improve your relationships, both personal and professional, because you learn to communicate differently. And with a deeper cultural understanding, you also learn to think differently. It's like going to law school, which also totally warps your brain. The difference is that law school warps your brain to think more analytically, question everything, and see all sides. Having a broader and deeper cultural understanding warps your brain into being more empathetic. It also allows your communication style to be more flexible.
2. Greater Empathy
As a result of broader and deeper cultural understanding, we become more empathetic because of that understanding. And we all know that we could use a lot more empathy in this world. Empathy connects us all and it empowers us. With empathy we can better address our various needs.
3. Things Make More Sense
Once you speak a few languages, you start to notice the connection between languages. And if you're like me, you become curious about these relations. History makes more sense. Politics make more sense. Learning where certain words came from paint a clearer picture of not just history, but people, and culture as well.
4. Less Mental Decline in Old Age
My grandma has dementia, but what continues to amaze me is her ease of switching between any of the four languages she speaks. And while she can't remember what she just ate, and her memory has increasingly become worse, overall I have been impressed with how her memory has declined. Thankfully, she hasn't forgotten any of us. Early on in her dementia, she always remembered important things, even if she forgot minute day to day things. If I told her one day I would take her to lunch the next, she would call me the next day to confirm our lunch. I'm not an expert on memory or dementia, but studies have suggested that bilingual capabilities help keep cognitive mechanics sharp. It makes sense because you're constantly switching back and forth between languages.
5. Overall Increased Brain Power
Many studies have shown the developmental benefits of being bilingual or multilingual on your brain. I already talked about mental decline in old age, but beyond that, because your brain is always switching between languages your brain is better developed to execute high-level thought, multi-tasking, and sustained attention. You also possess greater cognitive flexibility, which makes you more creative in problem solving. That relates back to how being multilingual broadens and deepens your cultural understanding as well as creates greater empathy.
There's no doubt that being multilingual is an asset and has many positive benefits. While I may not have appreciated it as a child, I certainly am beyond grateful to have grown up with and around so many languages. I hope I will be able to find a way to create enthusiasm and encourage my own son to embrace a multilingual tongue. I will keep you all posted on how we harbor that in a positive way.
Did you grow up in a bilingual or multilingual home? I would love to hear your experience! Feel free to comment below!
Have a jawesome day!