For nearly a week, the New York Times’ most e-mailed article has been “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter.”
Frankly, I’m surprised. I thought it was quite obvious why people who speak two languages are smarter than those who speak only one.
It’s because they’ve had to work hard to become bilingual.
As anyone who has conducted a business meeting in a language other than their native tongue can attest, complete fluency in a foreign language can only be achieved through hard work and years of disciplined study. That kind of devotion was perhaps first sparked by a week’s holiday to Paris, or a deep interest in the pyramids from an early age. Or perhaps the motivation comes from sheer pragmatism by acknowledging that learning Chinese can increase one’s odds of earning a higher income.
Whatever the reason that sparked the flame, the ability to sustain the initial drive clearly indicates the presence of a good brain. What’s more, learning a language isn’t simply about being able to translate words and phrases. It’s as much about understanding different value systems and a sense of history from one’s own which requires greater sensitivity to the world around us.
Granted, those of us who have been fortunate enough to be born into a multilingual environment have a distinct advantage in picking up a second or even third language. Still, if you want to go beyond simply having a basic conversation about the weather and talk about the political situation in the Middle East or marketing opportunities in China, you too will have to put your nose to the grindstone and be diligent about reading and writing at grade level if the skill is to be of professional use in the long run.
But even if complete fluency is never achieved, or the language is not put to use in the workplace, there is no doubt that any effort to learn any language can only lead to greater understanding of another culture and challenge the mind to be more flexible.
It’s comforting to be told that being bilingual decreases the chances of going senile, according to the New York Times. I have to admit, though, I don’t quite buy into the science of how that may be possible. Still, I know for certain that I am a smarter version of myself by speaking foreign languages which have enhanced my understanding of the world. I know too that if I spoke more, I would increase my knowledge further and be an even smarter version of myself because it would require a massive amount of commitment, which I am afraid I don’t have the ability to give at the moment.
I hope, though, that American children will eventually be like kids in Belgium or the Netherlands where speaking three or four languages is only to be expected. At the very least, I hope that increased interest in bilingualism in general will encourage schools to teach foreign languages more rigorously at an early age. It’s a great investment to nurture greater tolerance in an ever integrated and yet ever tense world.