What are the benefits of learning a second language?

The benefits of learning a second language are myriad.  There are obvious benefits – such as being able to communicate with more people and learn about other cultures – but there are less obvious benefits too.  Research shows that bilinguals develop stronger cognitive and brain processes that enable them to function better in areas that are both related and unrelated to speaking another language. 

“[B]ilingualism shapes not only language development, but also cognitive development more generally.”

Bilingual children have better “executive functioning” skills

Executive Functioning is the ability to engage in goal-oriented behavior. There are several skills that are required to do executive functioning successfully. Those skills are paying attention, planning and organizing, remembering details (working memory), staying focused, switching focus when needed (flexible thinking), multi-tasking, regulating one’s emotions and tuning out other distractions (inhibitory control), and understanding different points of view (theory of mind).

Remarkably, as children learn a second language, they strengthen brain processes and cognitive skills that extend beyond speaking another language.  Numerous studies have shown that these brain processes don’t just help bilinguals learn vocabulary, they help bilinguals perform all executive functioning tasks better, including those unrelated to language.  For example, learning two languages can improve a bilingual child’s ability to pay attention in math class.

Research demonstrates that bilinguals have stronger skills in the following broad categories of executive functioning:

  • Cognitive Skills: Bilinguals have an advantage in cognitive processing tests that involve skills like flexible thinking, paying attention, and ignoring irrelevant information.
  • Social Skills: Bilinguals have an advantage in demonstrating empathy, perspective-taking, and theory of mind.
  • Language-processing Skills: Bilinguals have an advantage in language-specific skills, including listening skills, vocal recognition, phonological awareness, and learning additional languages.

Here’s the evidence:

Bilingual children adapt better to changes in their environment

One component of executive functioning is flexible thinking; in other words, being able to change what you are doing based on changes in circumstances.  Research indicates that bilingual children perform better on tests of flexible thinking.  For example, in one study, babies learned that when they heard a sound, a puppet would appear on one side of a screen.  Halfway through the study, the puppet started appearing on the other side of the screen.  Only the babies raised in bilingual homes were able to adapt successfully to the change.

Interestingly, the bilingual advantage in flexible thinking seems to extend to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as well.  Children who are on the autism spectrum typically struggle adjusting to changes in their environments.  That’s why recent research conducted with bilingual and monolingual children on the autism spectrum is particularly interesting.  In one study, researchers at McGill University asked autistic children between the ages of 6 and 9 to perform tasks that required switching between activities.  The study found that bilingual children with autism shifted between tasks more successfully than their monolingual counterparts.     

Bilingual children are better at understanding a speaker’s meaning

To communicate effectively, you need to know more than vocabulary; you also need to have the social and emotional skills that allow you to understand another person’s meaning.  For example, the word “pop” in the sentence, “I like pop,” could mean “soda,” if the speaker is a Michigander, or “popsicle,” if the speaker is a New Yorker.  The meaning depends on where the speaker is from.  Reading social cues about meaning – such as where someone is from and how that influences what they might mean –  is a necessary part of communication.  It’s also something that bilinguals get a lot of practice doing.

In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, bilingual children and, significantly, children who were exposed to another language though they were not bilingual, were more successful than monolingual children at determining a speaker’s meaning.  The study involved a communication test that paired one adult and one child in a game to move objects in a grid.  The child could see all of the objects, but the adult could only see some.  The child understood that the adult couldn’t see all the objects.  For the critical test, the adult asked the child to move the “small” car.  The child was able to see three cars – small, medium, and large – but the adult could only see the medium and large cars.  To correctly understand the adult’s meaning, the child had to realize that the “small” car that the adult was referring to was the smallest car the adult could see, but not the smallest car the child could see.  The adult’s “small” car was the child’s “medium” car.  In other words, the child had to understand the adult’s perspective.

As one of the study’s authors, Dr. Katherine Kinzler, explains: “Children in multilingual environments routinely have the opportunity to track who speaks which language, who understands which content, and who can converse with whom.  These early social-linguistic experiences could hone children’s skills at taking other people’s perspective and provide them tools for effective communications tools.”

Bilinguals demonstrate greater skills of perspective-taking and theory of mind

Theory of mind refers to a person’s recognition that another person has different beliefs, knowledge, motivations, and feelings than they do. Closely related to theory of mind, “perspective-taking” refers to a person’s ability to adopt the point of view of another person.

The findings of the University of Chicago study – that bilinguals have stronger perspective-taking skills –  is consistent with a growing body of research.  In two notable studies, researchers tested the difference between monolingual and bilingual children in performing theory of mind tasks.  One study involved monolingual and bilingual Persian preschoolers and another involved English and Mandarin monolingual and bilingual preschoolers.  Both studies used false-belief scenarios to determine whether the children were able to understand the mindset of another person.  In both studies, the bilingual children performed significantly better than their monolingual peers in theory of mind and perspective-taking tasks.

One of the most common ways that researchers test theory of mind skills in children is through “false-belief” tests.  To perform a “false-belief” task successfully, a child has to understand that a person can have a belief about something (ex:  the toy is in the drawer) that is different than reality (ex:  the toy is in the closet).  Here’s an illustration of how a researcher could test whether a child, Laura, has an understanding of this concept:

Ben and Laura are in a room.  Ben takes his toy, puts it in a drawer, and leaves the room.  While Ben is gone, his mother comes into the room and moves the toy from the drawer to the closet.  When Ben returns to the room, where will he look for the toy?  Even though Laura knows where the toy is, can she predict where Ben will look for it by understanding Ben’s false perspective?

Bilingual children have better listening skills

Being bilingual improves the listening skills of children.  In a recent study, bilingual children were able to recognize voices and identify the speaker better than monolingual children.  Significantly, bilinguals were able to do so even in languages they didn’t speak.