Three years ago, I had a hardworking student in my class whom I’ll call Jose. As I connected with him, I was glad to learn more about his past and found out that he had immigrated with his family to the United States from Mexico a couple of years prior. At parents’ night, Jose’s mother spoke to him in Spanish, which surprised me as he never spoke Spanish at school and had previously told me that he only spoke English.
The next day, I pulled Jose aside and asked him about his speaking Spanish with his mother. With his head hung low, he explained that he was ashamed of speaking Spanish because he wanted to be “more American.” My heart broke for him, and throughout the course of that year, it became one of my teacher missions to show Jose that the ability to speak two languages is a great asset.
Sadly, Jose’s story is not unique. As educators, it’s our responsibility to show bilingual students that the ability to speak two languages is a great gift. Bilingualism is an incredible skill—it can lead to stronger brain functioning, higher incomes, and positive health impacts. In many ways, bilingualism is a superpower. There’s so much research showing the significant benefits of speaking two languages, and it’s important to empower students by sharing this information with them.
Benefits of Bilingualism
Bilingualism makes executive functioning skills stronger. Researchers at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan studied brain scans of bilingual and monolingual individuals. They found that people who are bilingual have significantly more gray matter in the portion of their brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is one of the portions of the brain involved in executive functioning.
People who are bilingual are consistently switching between languages and interpreting which language needs to be used at which time; this is brain exercise, which leads to the strengthening of this portion of the brain muscle. Researchers conclude that by having more gray matter in this portion of the brain, people who are bilingual may have an easier time with executive functions, including decision-making, motivation, and emotional regulation.
Bilingualism makes people better at multitasking. People who are bilingual are multitasking without thinking about it. As a person’s brain transitions from one language to another, they are processing information and shifting between languages at the same time.
Research shows that the ability to multitask linguistically translates to an ability to multitask in other areas of a person’s life because it strengthens the executive functioning skills in the brain. Researchers conducted a study looking at whether or not elementary school students could multitask; in this study, researchers had students perform multiple different types of tasks, and they found that bilingual students outperformed monolingual students on tasks that required students to multitask.
Bilingualism can increase math and reading performance. Several studies have shown a correlation between bilingualism and stronger mathematical abilities in students. In a large study of pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade students, bilingual students outperformed monolingual students in mathematical reasoning, mathematical skills on word problems, and early number awareness skills.
Along with increased math performance, there is also conjecture that bilingualism can increase students’ reading abilities.
American University conducted a four-year study of Portland Public School students, comparing the academics of students enrolled in dual-language programs with those of students enrolled in traditional public schools. Students were enrolled into these two types of programs at random, and it was found that by the end of middle school, students in dual-language programs were performing one grade level higher on reading assessments than their peers who were not enrolled in these programs.
Bilingualism increases earning potential and job opportunities. Research shows that employers from all career fields prefer to hire bilingual employees. Research also shows that among the millennial generation, bilingual employees earn more on average than their monolingual counterparts. It’s been reported that bilingual employees earn on average between 5 percent and 20 percent more than their monolingual peers.
Bilingualism can prevent negative effects of disease and brain injury. In recent years, a number of studies have been published looking at the impacts of bilingualism on human health. Many of these studies have surprising results showing the protection that bilingualism can provide to the brain.
A study from York University found that people who are bilingual have delayed symptoms after a diagnosis of dementia; while bilingualism didn’t stop a person’s dementia, people who were bilingual exhibited symptoms approximately four years later than people who were monolingual with the same disease pathology. Another study that specifically looked at the impact of bilingualism on Alzheimer’s disease found that bilingual people with the disease had symptom onset four to five years later than people who were monolingual.
Another research study examined stroke patients and looked at the different outcomes for bilingual and monolingual patients. The study found that people who were bilingual were more than twice as likely to recover their cognitive functioning skills as people who spoke only one language.
In these studies, researchers concluded that people who are bilingual have a larger cognitive reserve than people who are monolingual due to the more advanced executive functioning skills in their brains that result from continual language switching. Researchers believe that this cognitive reserve allows bilingual individuals a greater ability to compensate in the case of brain injury or illness.
Three weeks ago, I saw Jose in the hallway at school. He was giving a campus tour to a new student who had just immigrated from Oaxaca, Mexico. Jose was speaking with the other student in Spanish as he explained where the new student’s classrooms were located. I am proud to share that today he’s embracing his Spanish language skills and serves as a mentor for others. He now knows that bilingualism is one of his many superpowers.