Benefits of being bilingual

According to a study at the University of Haifa in Israel, children who grow up bilingually are able to learn a third language more easily than monolingual children.

The study compared children who speak Russian and Hebrew with those who speak only Hebrew, and who are all learning English at school. It found that the bilingual children not only find it easy to learn English, but also that doing so raises their IQs, and that they speak Hebrew better than the Hebrew monolinguals.

The researchers believe that learning several languages at a young age bolsters one’s language skills, and as skill in language is an important cognitive function, this makes learning easier in general.

When researching the phenomenon of language decline and death for my dissertation, I found that one common reason why languages decline is because many people believe that it’s better for their children to speak a mainstream language rather than a minority language, and that trying to speak both languages is likely to overwhelm their poor little brains and result in them speaking neither language very well. This research suggests that such beliefs are mistaken.

10 thoughts on “Benefits of being bilingual

  1. What does it mean that the bilingual children “speak Hebrew better than the Hebrew monolinguals”? That seems impossible to me…unless its measured by a prescriptive standard?

  2. Not surprised and I completely agree, it’s exceptionally good for children to learn multiple languages growing up, I just wish I had :/

  3. I think the point of speaking better Hebrew here is meant by the way of a comparison between Eastern and Western Hebrew. The Ashkenazi Hebrew which is mainly spoken by European immigrants into Israel do not, usually, give out correct sounds for some sounds like Ayin, and Chet (“ע” and “ח” respectively). Usually Ayin is turned into glottal stop and Chet into Scottish “ch” sound. There are sounds that changed permanently like “tsadi” (צ) which is pronounced as “TS” by both groups, but the Eastern (I think they call it Mizrachim sometimes or Sefardim) is, if I can say this, the most close in sounds to the original (or archaic) Hebrew.

    Maybe speaking Hebrew better, is mean to be the ability to produce these sounds more accurately.

  4. @Simon – I read your dissertation, it is really interesting, thanks!
    I was surprised about what you said about some Irish people not knowing about Manx. When I was at school in the 80s we studied comparisons between the main Irish dialects, Manx, Scots Gaelic, Welsh and Breton. Maybe they don’t do that any more.

  5. Simon – you probably know about Enlli Thomas at Bangor who’s done a lot of research into bilingualism and young children?

    She’s looking at it from a Welsh-English point of view of course. There was a programme about her and her work on S4C a year or two ago. She used a lot of research undertaken in Canada. I’m sure she’d be interested in this and likewise maybe Israel in her work.

  6. Macsen – I know Enlli and about the work of the bilingualism centre. While I was I student I went to some interesting seminars there.

  7. I believe the main reason is that native bilinguals are aware that languages are different. Monolinguals are often unaware that there are other sounds than in their native language and often believe there isa 1:1 correspondence of words and grammar of different languages.

  8. although i agree to many of the statements about and believe strongly in the benefits of multilingualism at a young age, i am cautious to say that it directly allows the speakers to learn new languages more easily, especially later in life. having taken many second-languages courses myself, i have seen many people (i myself am a monolingual by upbringing) who are native polyglots, but who are rather miserable at learning other languages. i can remember one particular young woman in a german class i took who was a native trilingual english-french-armenian speaker. but she was without a doubt the worst in the german class, through no lack of effort on her part. i would also hesitate on speaking of an awareness of native polyglots on sound distinction. of course they’d be able to produce the differences amongst their respective languages’ sounds without problem, but the questions of whether or not they realize these differences (particularly at young ages), and whether or not they can go on to master a new language’s phonemes/allophones seems to me to be more case by case. i can recall another example of a young woman who is native anglophone, but did french immersion throughout her schooling. as good as she was in our russian class (up to an advanced level in university), she could not produce a “tap” R without intense effort.
    i guess i’m just trying to say that, in my belief, without regular exposure to new language learning experiences during, say, adolescence and youth, simply the fact that someone is a native polyglot does not necessarily give that person a particularly absorbent brain for new languages. they may still find it very challenging and even perhaps impossible to learn a new language if they start it in adulthood after not having learnt anything since childhood. perhaps it’s more of a question of keeping the door open, and not letting it slip shut, if you know what i mean.

    but i also wholeheartedly agree with the utter horror it is that people still believe that a child learning more than one language will somehow be slower than his/her monolingual peers. needless to say, i try my best to dispel that myth and tout the benefits of learning languages at a young age as much as i can. my native-speaker korean language professor hadn’t even taught her own kids korean. imagine that!

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