The benefits of being bilingual

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Rachel Vogt, Columnist

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When I came to Wayne State in the fall of 2016, I had a declared major, but wasn’t sure if it would be for me or not. One thing I was sure I wanted to learn more of was Spanish, which was and is still my minor. I have a lot of people come up to me and ask why I would want to learn a foreign language, especially if they’re going to build a wall to keep “all those Spanish speakers out” (I work in a bar, so that’s a phrase I hear quite often). But in my opinion, there are many reasons to want to learn a new language.

First off, being able to say that you are bilingual (which I am not at this point, but I would like to be someday soon) greatly improves your competitiveness in the job market. The ability to speak multiple languages makes you a much better candidate for positions, especially with companies that are becoming increasingly diverse and serving multilingual populations at home and abroad.

Secondly, knowing a second language can open up many new career opportunities that you may not have qualified for if you cannot speak another language. Jobs as translators and interpreters are in the top 15 fastest-growing occupations in the United States.

Fields such as travel and tourism, healthcare and national security need employees with bilingual language skills and the ability to work across cultures. Fields such as journalism, education and international development are always in search of bilingual employees. And knowing a second language can give you an edge if you want to apply for the Peace Corps or become a Foreign Service Officer.

Third, bilinguals can earn significantly more money than their peers who cannot speak multiple languages. Jobs with pay differentials based on bilingualism generally pay 5 to 20 percent more per hour for bilingual employees. College graduates who speak two languages make an average of 2 percent more than those who do not, which means by the point of retirement, an additional $67,000 could be in your bank account.

These are just the ways that being bilingual can help someone in the workplace, but there are also life improvements that can arise by being bilingual, such as different social and cultural opportunities.

Speaking another language lets you interact with different people and understand other cultures, meaning more opportunities to make friends, explore different hobbies and better understand foreign music, film and literature. Travel can also be cheaper and more rewarding when you speak the language of the country you are visiting. You won’t be limited to staying in expensive foreigner hotels, eating at restaurants where the staff speaks English or traveling with a tour group. Instead, you can find your own way and experience the country the way a local would. You might enjoy cheaper access to museums because you don’t have to pay for a foreign-language guide, and you will certainly have more opportunities to meet people, engage in conversation and learn about the culture.

Another advantage of knowing another language is the new perspective that it gives you. Many people who speak more than one language report feeling “like a different person” when they speak the other language. Research by a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found that bilinguals emphasize different character traits depending on which language they are speaking. Another study found significant levels of “frame-shifting,” or changes in self-perception, among bilingual participants.

Researchers interviewed Hispanic women who were fluent in both Spanish and English and found that many classified themselves as more assertive when they spoke Spanish. The women also had different perceptions of the same advertisements when they saw them in English and in Spanish.

There are also health and well-being advantages to being bilingual. Multiple studies have shown that bilingualism can improve problem-solving, multitasking and decision making. The ability to focus attention and perform mental tasks are two key brain functions that are improved in bilingual speakers.

There have also been studies that show that bilingualism can slow the effects of old age. Cognitive flexibility, or the ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected circumstances, tends to decline as people age, but speaking a second language can block that decline or at least significantly delay it. And while bilingualism cannot prevent Alzheimer’s disease, it can delay the onset of symptoms as many as five years. A recent study found that the brains of people who suffered from Alzheimer’s show the same physical deterioration whether they were monolingual or bilingual. But the people who could speak two languages do not exhibit the typical symptoms of Alzheimer’s, such as memory loss, confusion and difficulties with problem-solving and planning, until much later than those who only speak one language.

So as you can see, there are many benefits to knowing and utilizing a second, or even a third language, so that is why I suggest studying either online or taking classes in other languages.

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