The benefits of being bilingual

The Takeaway

While on tour in Puerto Rico earlier this month, GOP candidate Rick Santorum said that Puerto Ricans should accept English as their “main language.”

“Obviously Spanish is going to be spoken here on the island, but this needs to be a bilingual country, not just a Spanish speaking country,” Santorum said.

Santorum’s verbal blooper opened up an interesting door. Perhaps America needs to become a bilingual country to compete in the 21st century global economy. According to Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, a trilingual science staff writer for The New York Times, learning an additional language is a mental workout with many benefits.

“In the last 15 years there has been a lot of research that clearly shows a bilingual or trilingual advantage,” Bhattacharjee said. “Bilinguals appear to process a lot of information a lot quicker than monolinguals do, most importantly, bilinguals appear to have a superior ability to control attention and to switch attention between tasks.”

Researchers and educators had long assumed that operating with two languages served as a distraction that impeded cognition. Now however, new research has exposed that regularly switching between languages actually strengthens the brain.

Cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok said bilingual people have an enhanced executive control system, the “general manager” of the brain.

“If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment,” Bialystok said. “Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.”

Despite the many benefits of bilingualism, Bhattacharjee said students who speak two languages often face discrimination in the classroom.

“In schools today there is a stigma attached to knowing a second language that is not English. In fact, you are better off telling teachers that you only speak one language at home and that is English,” Bhattacharjee said.

A broadly held belief is that bilingualism limits assimilation. Speaking in Puerto Rico with reporters, Santorum said English speaking is essential to being an American.

“English should be taught here and everyone should speak English here. That’s something I think is essential to be an American, period,” Santorum said. “Whether you’re going to be a state or not, people should speak English, and English should be a common language among all Americans, period.”

Bhattacharjee said in today’s globalized world, bilingualism is a distinct asset, not an impediment for Americans.

“Children who are growing up today learning two languages or more are definitely going to have an advantage in the work place or wherever they live,” he said. “They’re going to have to deal with a wider range of people not just in America but in other parts of the world so of course that’s the pragmatic benefit of learning more than one language.”

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