Note from Storm: Obviously, the title above is geared towards us monolingual native-born Americans. The vast majority of the world already speaks multiple languages. And I’m not just talking about the well-educated, either.
Go into almost any tiny rural Mexican village, for instance, and most people will speak their native language (there are 62 Native American languages and dialects spoken in Mexico) in addition to Spanish. If they live in a tourist (or U.S./Canadian ex-pat retirement) area, they’ll probably speak some English, too. Meanwhile, we Americans let our brains go to flab while we wait for everyone else to learn “our” language.
Of course, the revitalizing effects of learning another language go far beyond brain-rewiring: a whole new culture and way of perceiving, feeling, and interacting is opened up to us, enriching our lives in many often-unexpected ways. Practiced on a mass scale, that would be be tremendously revitalizing for today’s increasingly fear-and-ignorance-driven American culture.
It’s well known that being bilingual has cognitive benefits: switching between two languages has been compared to mental gymnastics.
But now, research suggests that mastering two languages can fundamentally alter the structure of your brain, rewiring it to work differently than the brains of those who only speak one language.
“Bilinguals are a really a model of cognitive control,” says Pennsylvania State University cognitive scientist Judith F. Kroll, citing bilinguals’ ability to both hold two languages in their head and expertly switch between them at the right times.
Kroll says this study shows how being bilingual can improve speakers’ cognitive abilities.