Bilingualism: A 21st Century Asset

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The ability to speak at least one language other than your native tongue, being bilingual, is an asset in today’s diverse society. In America, if not already, our unofficial second language should be Spanish, because we have so many Spanish speakers living among us. Chinese, Urdu, Russian, German,…..Italian, and a host of other languages and dialects can be heard spoken by people we pass along on our busy streets everyday. Isn’t anyone curious? Fascinated?

If anyone is prone to paranoia, certainly there must be some degree of curiosity when next to or near two or more people speaking in a language other than English. It is elitist of us, in America, to expect everyone who enters our national borders to speak English in order to acceptably communicate with us.We get offended when someone dares to not know this language, or speaks with very heavy foreign accents. Some even get offended and mock the Southern accent, and associate it with low[er] intelligence or racism when an American-born citizen dares to speak with that southern ‘drawl’. [That’s a different conversation, however.] We can be so insufferably intolerant! It is too difficult to understand foreign accents, we think to ourselves, and communication is strained. At least they make an effort to engage us in our native language, but do we extend the same courtesy?

We say,”This is America. Speak English!” And place the responsibility on others, recent immigrants, foreigners to conform and learn our official language with immediacy. How dare we think and behave so one-sided! Is anyone old enough to remember the time when a general high school diploma could not be earned without studying Latin, that dead language? I understand the reasoning, although I was lucky to graduate high school the first year after Latin was no longer a requirement for graduation. Much of our English words have Latin derivatives. Makes sense. I studied French and mastered Spanish anyway, as elective courses.

That was then, and this is now. The world is a global village, we exist in a global economy and we are to respect and appreciate diversity-even language diversity. Overall, having the ability to speak a second language is a wonderful and highly marketable skill and an undeniable asset. So many career areas pay higher salaries and employers actively recruit professionals with bilingual or multilingual skills, in all career sectors. Especially valuable in the helping professions, and those who work directly with the public, when one can eliminate potential language barriers, he or she tends to wear many hats and possesses great value to employers.  They become the ‘go-to’ person who serves as translator, liaison, advocate and designated communicator. That’s valuable!

Children who are raised in households where the primary spoken language isn’t English, aren’t handicapped at all. As ELLs[English Language Learners], they actually have a great advantage over other children whose primary language is English or monolingual. Allow me to explain some of the many benefits of being bilingual.

  1. Studies show that being bilingual has many cognitive benefits. Speaking a second language can mean that you have a better attention span and can multi-task better than monolinguals. Switching from one side of the brain to the other, constantly provides this benefit. There have been studies showing that bilingualism reduces the risk of having a stroke. Cognitive benefits effect kids and adults.
  2. Bilingualism has educational advantages. Many of the above benefits also can mean there is an advantage at school. Many studies have shown that they are less distracted and more task-focused. A Millennium Cohort study found that young children who are educated in their second language may initially fall behind their peers between 3-5 years old. But, they soon catch up and outperform their peers by age 7.
  3. As stated earlier, languages are highly valued in the workplace, with numerous employment benefits. Being bilingual means that there are more jobs opportunities depending on languages spoken. Bilingual skills is definitely a great plus for a resume, and can boost your chances of landing that job, even when you may not be as qualified as another monolingual applicant.
  4. Speaking a foreign language can be of great benefit when you travel. You can get around in many other countries around the world without knowing or speaking the native or local language. If you can speak the language, imagine how much more fulfilling and enjoyable your experiences will be when there. Immerse yourself in the language and culture and develop empathy, and multicultural sensitivity and awareness, almost effortlessly.
  5. One of the biggest misconceptions is that bilingualism is rare, but being bilingual means you are not the minority. More than half the world speaks more than one language on a daily basis. In fact, in many countries bilingualism is the norm.

Hopefully soon, the rest of the world will catch on, and that means us in the United States of America. Everyone should have the chance to learn a second language and reap the benefits of being bilingual. Imagine…some people are multilingual, and speak up to eight or more languages! That is fantastic, and a 21st Century asset in a global society. Bring foreign languages instruction back into our nation’s schools, not just for ELLs, but native English language speakers, too. Begin instruction as early as elementary school. Everyone benefits,  on a global scale, with bilingual skills. I suggest that we go out and learn a new language…today! ¡Adios!


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