The Argument for Bilingualism

Distribution of languages spoken in the United States. Statistics: U.S. Census Bureau Image Credit: Elizabeth Harrison

Distribution of languages spoken in the United States. Statistics: U.S. Census Bureau. Image credit: Elizabeth Harrison

According to the United States Census Bureau, 21 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home. Of this number, an even smaller percentage reports also speaking English at least “very well,” leaving only a very small population, about 12 percent, that actually considers itself bilingual.  Our European counterparts report a much higher rate of bilingualism, which they define as being able to effectively hold a conversation in a language other than their native one.  The percentage in the United States pales in comparison to Europe’s 54 percent.  With more studies and research demonstrating the beneficial effects of bilingualism appearing each day, the United States has something to learn.

Sra. Soria-Nieto converses with students from her hometown in Spain. Photo credit: Elizabeth Harrison

Sra. Soria-Nieto converses with students from her hometown in Spain during the International Emerging Leaders Conference at Collegiate. Photo credit: Elizabeth Harrison

Upper School language teacher Esperanza Soria-Nieto speaks only Spanish with her two children.  She explained her reasoning for teaching her children her native language and her support for others pursuing bilingualism, “I think that it’s much better, for my kids, but also for anybody.  It’s the world.  Spanish is the second language in the United States … and [my daughter] has done so much with the Hispanic community.  [Bilingualism] opens a lot of doors, not just with Spanish, but with any language.”  Every Saturday, Señora Soria-Nieto works at Oak Grove – Bellemeade Elementary School to teach Spanish-speaking immigrant children English through games and other activities.  The current school year is the first year that the program has been integrated into the AP Spanish curriculum, and she now takes her seniors there as part of the class.

Vlastik Svab, Upper School English teacher, said of his experience with languages, “I was born in the Czech Republic and came to the US when I was five. So my childhood was bilingual too, and I’m grateful for it. And I’m grateful for Sra. Soria-Nieto and Sra. Coffey, who convinced me that going bilingual at home would be beneficial for my son.”  Middle School language teacher Monica Johnston also chose not to speak to her children in English, even though it is her native language.  Instead, she chose her second language, French, in hopes that it would open them up to other cultures, saying, “I think that [my children] have realized since a very young age that there are multiple languages spoken in the world.  I want them to be curious about and humbled by the plurality of languages and cultures. I want them to value and respect all languages and cultures.”  When asked why she chose to be a language teacher, and what impact she hopes to have in that regard, Mme. Johnston replied, “I think learning any language is valuable.  Learning a language invites you to consider other people and their culture, their perspectives.  It has the power to break down elitist stereotypes and to build empathy.”  

The benefits of bilingualism can be backed up with scientific research as well, as it becomes a more prevalent topic in the United States, in part due to growing immigrant populations. Scientists are looking to bilingualism as potentially having strong beneficial effects on cognitive reserve, a concept attributed to delayed mental aging and memory loss. Additionally, a study led by University of Chicago psychologist Boaz Keysar found that learning a second language might help people become better decision makers.  Theoretically, one is more emotionally detached from a second language, and thus they are able to make more analytical decisions.  Many other studies have been done on the effects of speaking multiple languages, including one by MIT economist Albert Saiz that shows that foreign languages can actually increase salary.  

Collegiate students Felipe (‘17) and Caroline Campos (‘18) understand the particular experience that accompanies bilingualism.  Born to Brazilian parents, they speak primarily Portuguese at home, though English inevitably works its way into some conversations.  Although they do not speak Portuguese at school, Felipe said that “there are certain neurological benefits to being bilingual, so it could very well have had a significant impact on my academic career thus far.”  Caroline appreciates the ability that speaking English and Portuguese gives her to feel at home in both the United States and Brazil, where most of the Campos’ relatives live.  Margaux Gaeser (‘19) speaks French at home, and said, “I really enjoy the whole cultural aspect. I am able to explore new things and places pertaining to the language. I also love the satisfaction you get when applying the language in everyday life.”  However, her appreciation for speaking more than one language reaches past her own experience, and she added, “I think that the group of children who are bilingual in America has grown due to the increase of immigration, but I believe every American child should take two languages at school from an early age.”  In France, where Margaux’s mother was born, students are required to be able to communicate in at least one other modern language in order to graduate from high school.  Margaux, Felipe, and Caroline each said that they support their parents’ decision to raise them in a language other than English, and all three said that they would make the same decision with their own children.  

Speaking more than one language not only fulfills a course requirement, but it improves brain function, creates opportunities in the community, and opens doors for communication with a more connected world and global market.  In 2016, it is no longer possible to experience the world in just one language, and bilingualism can help the United States foster a more global mindset and acceptance of diverse cultures and perspectives.

About the author

Elizabeth doesn't have her real license yet.