IF YOU’RE READING THIS, you speak English. That means that you speak a language that 850 million other people in the world speak. That’s a lot: that’s about 12% of the total global population. That’s more than one out of every ten people on the planet that you could have a conversation with, or a relationship with, or live a complete life with.
But if you chose to learn another language — say, Mandarin — you would suddenly be able to speak to another billion people. Another 14% of the the world’s population. Meaning that you could now have a meaningful, communicative relationship with a quarter of the world’s people.
That’s basically a superpower. That on its own is incredible. But it turns out, there are a ton of other major benefits to learning a second language.
1. Bilingual people have way better memories.
Children who speak a second language have been found to on the whole have much better working memories than children who are monolingual. The working memory is mostly developed early in life, but it can still be learned and honed later in life, too, meaning that, while you might have a harder time learning a new language now than you would have as a kid, you can still reap the benefits.
2. Being bilingual can delay Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Studies have shown that people who are bilingual have better cognitive functioning as they get older, and while bilingualism doesn’t necessarily prevent Alzheimer’s or dementia, people with either affliction tend to develop them 4.5 years later on average than monolingual people with the affliction.
So when people say you should do a crossword or a sudoku to keep your brain sharp in old age, consider learning another language instead.
3. Bilingual people are generally smarter.
Researchers have found that learning a second language not only improves the language centers of the brain, but improves other cognitive skills as well. Bilingual brains are better at solving problems more creatively, are better at staying focused, and are better at planning. Bilinguals are also better at paying attention to their environment — which likely comes from monitoring a situation to be able to tell which language is being spoken so one can quickly switch back and forth between language systems.
4. Being bilingual will improve your relationships.
Bilinguals often report feeling like they have two personalities — one in one language, one in another. In part, this is because language learning comes along with an ability to shift between the values of the two cultures that you’re living in. And while this might not sound like the best thing, it’s actually hugely beneficial, because this ability to shift between two value systems improves your ability to understand others, making you more empathetic.
If you’re able to be more empathetic, and if you’re able to better communicate with the people around you, you’ll have better relationships.
5. Travel will be more fulfilling.
This one doesn’t need much explanation: travel is infinitely better when you can understand and communicate with the people around you. Speaking the local language makes travel a much more fulfilling activity.
6. Being bilingual helps you professionally.
Being able to speak two languages is a really, really good skill to have on your resume. Surveys have found that bilingual people are more valued as employees, and that can translate into being paid more.
7. Being bilingual makes you sexier.
Not a joke: a 2013 survey found that 79% of adults find being able to speak a second language a more attractive trait than speaking a single language. That said, there’s a catch: the effect is greater depending on the perceived sexiness of the language you speak.
French, unsurprisingly, is considered the sexiest language, followed by Italian, then Spanish, then English. The least sexy language, the survey found, is Korean.
Photo: Jonathan Kos Read