Babies are born being neither mono-lingual nor bi-lingual. But, each of us is born with the hereditary ability and predisposition to talk. There is ample scientific research evidence that the distinct sounds of a language spoken by the mother and others are heard by the growing embryo so that by the time that a baby is born, he/she has been conditioned to hearing and reacting to the sounds and rhythms of that language. There is some evidence that the same thing happens when the environment includes multiple languages.
If you happen to be born into a family that speaks more than one language, you might very well grow up to at least not be perplexed when others around you speak those languages. If you happen to be born into such a household and your parents and others talk to you at times in one language and at other times in another language, you might very well be conditioned to respond to each language and perhaps respond in one or both of the languages. But, none of this guarantees that you’ll grow up speaking more than one language. Most children in the United States who grow up in such households end up being monolingual speakers of English. Still, a sizable number do grow up speaking both English and another language. It might be Spanish, Mandarin, French, or Portuguese. But, speaking two languages does not necessarily mean that you’ll be “literate” in the second language. (Literacy comes form study and concentration and practice.) This outcome is the consequence when parents do not teach their children to read and write in the other language either because they aren’t literate enough to be able to teach their children or because they choose not to teach their children anything about the “other” language. The fear that speaking two languages will impede your English skills and abilities is still very real in the 21st Century! The shortcoming is exacerbated by the fact that the vast majorities of American public schools do not teach nor foster the development of language arts skills in languages beyond English, until perhaps in the later grades.
But, all hope is not lost. Even if you’ve grown up being monolingual, you can acquire a second language and even the very language of your ancestors. The good news is that the market supports a variety of second language learning experiences, some of them on-line virtual lessons. Once you’ve learned the fundamentals of grammar, vocabulary and semantics and have become proficient in your second language, you can go the extra step and apply your language skills to your job. One way to do this is to read different media in the second language or strike up conversations with your peers and colleagues who already use their second language for work or study.
So, let’s explore the ideal. Let’s say that you fall into the fortunate circumstances of having been enrolled in an English/Other Language (dual language) program in school, starting in the elementary grades. And, let’s say that you have had or are taking the opportunity to study math, science, technology, engineering or any other course of study in a dual language program that teaches you the linguistic fundamentals of each language and the language of these subjects or fields of study. What benefits might you expect? I submit that there are multiple benefits that complement and enhance most any career choice in the 21st Century.
I would argue that if you are proficient and literate in at least two languages and that if you have studied core subjects in English and another language, you will be able to,
  • Converse in multiple languages. This is the obvious benefit. You can switch between languages as the circumstances merit or you can simply engage in one or the other at will.
  • Have an extensive circle of friends and colleagues who are also bi-lingual. The number of bi-lingual professionals is on the upswing in America. Consider the other obvious benefit: You might very well double the number of friends and colleagues! You can also enlarge your circle radically when you qualify for and get work assignments in most other countries that support and encourage bi-lingualism at social and professional levels.
  • Think more creatively. Multi-lingual persons are indeed able to interchange their skills domains easily. In other words, the very act of drawing from more than one language domain enhances your abilities to think “out of the box”. Plus, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to decipher vocabulary and even technical terms when you are able to draw words, sounds, and meanings from multiple languages. The key is to make every effort to go beyond mostly conversational skills to skills that enable you to “work” in your second language.
  • Appreciate and make use of a wide range of cultural cues and insights.When you learn another language, you naturally learn about the cultural and social features that are embedded in that language. The more you immerse yourself in other linguistic worlds, the easier it is for you to communicate socially with other speakers of that language. You acquire the norms, behaviors, and styles of communication that will enable you to think and act like a “native”. Over time, you’ll learn when to speak and when not to, much like you’ll learn who to speak to. You’ll also learn when it is acceptable to joke and to be serious and, equally important, when to get down to business.
  • Fine-tune your listening skills. A second language coaxes you to be a more careful listener simply because you become more conscious of intonation and speaking rhythms and how messages are constructed and conveyed. You become more conscious of conversational styles and rules of speaking.
  • Command a wide mix of culturally based behaviors. When you travel abroad, one of the first encounters is a world of people speaking their native language. You’ll also encounter many people of all ages who speak English! Whether they are engaged in natural social conversation like telling jokes, or gossiping, or re-telling a story or in a business setting where they are making a sales pitch, they are exhibiting the cultural norms of their communities and countries. When you become proficient enough to join in, you’ll be engaged in not only using the right mix of words, but you’ll be using them in they same way that the “natives” use them routinely. It takes practice to tell a joke in another language or even to tease or to flirt, but you can do it!
  • Draw from a wide-ranging pool of language and subject matter information. When you have access to more than one language, you are able to make use of the vocabulary and logic that the language represents. Learning math or science or business in the other language prepares you to craft arguments more efficiently and effectively. It’s not a duplication of what you already know; rather, it’s an expansion of the knowledge base you have acquired. You are now able to operate in multiple worlds!
  • Feel at ease in the presence of and interacting with foreign-born and immigrant persons. It a truism that the more at ease you are at operating in another language, the more apt you are to be accepting of the diverse world we live in. In short, monolinguals are less likely to talk to and work with persons who are not like them. Multicultural persons are in the ideal situation of “fitting in”.
I hope that my short essay on the distinct benefits of being bilingual will help you to appreciate the efforts. Becoming a bilingual person early in life has life-long benefits. Parents who are concerned about the future of their children would do well to heed the pay-off. Globalization already has become the norm that it will be shame if Americans are overshadowed and passed by their bilingual peers. But, it’s never too late. My brother-in-law’s goal after retirement has been to learn French and German. He studies independently and with tutors and also has met several native speakers in his hometown. He is planning on visiting both German and France in the near future.
Gil Narro Garcia is a native Texan who grew up in a bilingual and biliterate household. He is a retired educator and motivational speaker who is relentless in his efforts to coax the students of today to learn multiple languages and to become bilingual professionals in their chosen field and career.