The Dickinsonian

The Importance of Being Multilingual

Nadia Shahab Diaz ’21, Guest Writer

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Communication dominates our daily lives, whether it be at work, at home, abroad or in social settings. Thus, it is important to realize the impact that language has in our world and in how we interact with others.

The United States, in particular, prides itself on being a melting-pot of cultures and histories. Its immigrant population boasts people from all over the world, bringing more languages and traditions to this country than I could possibly fathom. Yet, in my personal opinion, there still seems to be doubt towards the assimilation of languages besides English and a lack of prioritization when it comes to learning new languages, despite the many advantages that accompany multilingualism.

To begin, those who learn an additional language acquire mental advantages beyond monolingualism. Learning another language in childhood improves cognitive abilities, allowing the brain to more easily alternate between activities, focus more clearly in a busy environment, and remember things better. For example, a study in Raquel Bermúdez’s “The Bilingual Phenomenon” shows that Puerto Ricans in New York who use Spanish and English in their daily lives have more agile and dynamic brains than those of monolinguals or bilinguals who do not alternate between languages. Studies like these show that the learning and use of more than one language produces more intelligent children with better abilities to use information in new ways; such benefits are still observed even among people with little to no education.

Multilinguals are also able to see things from a different cultural standpoint more easily than monolinguals, resulting in the spread of multiculturalism. This is a significant and enriching advantage in a world without borders, and a particularly important ability when it comes to understanding new cultures and people both within and outside our own country.

Additionally, multilingualism brings economic benefits. According to Hyoung-jin Shin and Richard Alba in “The Economic Value of Bilingualism for Asians and Hispanics,” the demand for skill in multiple languages has increased because of its potential economic benefits. Fluency in multiple languages can increase “commercial and service opportunities in both ethnic and general markets,” businesses in the economic world want workers “with multiple-language skills who can navigate international markets readily” and the United States’ high immigrant population “will raise the demand for bilingual workers…in the public” (Shin, Alba, 255).

Bilingual education in Europe demonstrates tremendous progress towards bilingual assimilation, along with benefiting from the results. 56 percent of the entire European Union is bilingual, with individual European countries showing even higher percentages of bilingualism, while the Census Bureau released data from the 2013 American Community Survey showing that only about one in five U.S. residents speaks a foreign language at home. Realistically, many European immigrants who come to the U.S. have a high probability of already speaking English; their ability to communicate with a larger audience would perhaps open job opportunities to them that are not as accessible to monolinguals. As the daughter of two immigrant parents working in finance, my parents’ language abilities in both Spanish and English have helped them greatly during negotiations in North America, South America, Europe and in various countries.

Admittedly, the close proximity and geography of countries in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia make sharing and learning new languages considerably easier than in the vast and isolated United States. And I do not blame citizens who do not have this opportunity available to them, whether it be because of location, finance, or anything else; however, that does not undermine the importance of multilingualism.

Personally, I cannot imagine the experiences that I would have missed out on without my bilingual upbringing. My mother constantly tells me, “Language is power.” With that in mind, I have never underestimated the importance of languages, I have never stopped wanting to learn new ones and I am always grateful for what those abilities have and will add to my life. Although I recognize that some may find multilingualism to be more valuable in some professions over others, I still believe that there is no one who cannot benefit in some way from expanding their mental capabilities and being able to reach out to greater and different groups of people.

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The Importance of Being Multilingual