But what is it like to speak two or more languages? Are there only benefits? Does learning a second language affect our ability to speak our mother tongue properly?
It obviously always depends on the individual, but sometimes speaking requires more attention for a multilingual person.
To be more specific, it requires constant involvement of the so-called ‘executive control’ system. This system is responsible for how our brain works, how it is organised; for things like problem solving, remembering, staying focused, multi-tasking, task shifting, self-correction etc.
By constantly using our executive control we enhance it and make it more resilient.
Therefore our memory becomes better, delaying the onset of dementia.
A study has proven that stroke recovery seems to work faster for bi- or multilinguals, since we have “more mental activities” and therefore “have more interconnected brains.”
Apparently, we are better at dealing with the “potential damage” of strokes, according to Dr. Thomas Bak, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and a co-author of the study.
Yet, speaking multiple languages can be challenging sometimes.
Almost everyone who can speak more than one language knows the struggle: you talk and talk in one language and suddenly you are missing a word; a word you know in the other language(s) you speak.
And this is just one of the struggles bi- or multilinguals face. This is just one of the struggles I face.
I sometimes lack vocabulary in the languages I speak, because I constantly switch between them and therefore do not speak as a monolingual person (someone who only speaks one language) would. I talk differently.
I grew up speaking Russian at home, learning German shortly before I got into kindergarten and then I was taught English as soon as I attended year 3.
I don’t think I speak any of these languages as well as some people who speak only German, only Russian or only English. I use other vocabulary and express myself in a different manner.
Almost everyone in Europe starts to learn English as their second language in primary school just like I did. Of course, you would learn English as it is the lingua franca. But this motivation to learn a new language helps us develop improved critical thinking and an ability to look at an issue from another angle.
“A person who speaks multiple languages has a stereoscopic vision of the world from two or more perspectives, enabling them to be more flexible in their thinking, learn reading more easily. Multilinguals, therefore, are not restricted to a single world-view, but also have a better understanding that other outlooks are possible. Indeed, this has always been seen as one of the main educational advantages of language teaching” – Vivian Cook, Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at Newcastle University
Learning and speaking more than one language does not only help you to get an idea of several mind-sets, it helps you empathise with people. It helps you understand people all over the world; when it comes to speaking, obviously, but also when it comes to appreciating different cultures.
When you can speak English in England you are able to see yourself as an ‘insider’. When you can speak another language as well, you are also able to become an ‘outsider’. You can switch perspectives. You get the ability to look at a culture from a subjective as well as objective point of view.
It makes you less likely to be racist, xenophobic (hostile to foreigners) and intolerant.
But what if the lingua franca is your first language already? Would you bother learning French or German when you know you can communicate with people all over the world by speaking your mother tongue?
Many English people wouldn’t, at least not properly.
Surveys show that 75% of people in the UK over 18 cannot hold a conversation in another major language. They may have learned the basics in school, but only enough, perhaps, to ask someone their name.
And now it gets interesting. If we consider that multilingual people are more open minded, less likely to be racist or xenophobic and have a different understanding of multiple cultures, and then look at the 75% of British people not knowing another language.
And then we look at Brexit.
See the link? Exactly. Coincidence? Probably not.