I am multilingual. I speak three languages, four if you add pidgin and five if I count my ability to throw together French nouns and verbs with no respect for the rules of the language. Speaking multiple languages is great and the world’s greatest polyglots are known to be fluent in 5-50 different languages. My 3-5 languages may not be impressive, but I can still do this without google translate
In Ghana, everyone you meet speaks at least two languages, three is standard, four is quite common and the minimum criteria to sell waakye is five languages. The benefit of such a dense population of multilinguals has never been explored and many are unaware of the benefits of being multilingual in the first place. I cannot do anything about the first problem (not yet) but the next few paragraphs cover the second
Speaking multiple languages help in early childhood brain development
Before babies are able to speak, they can identify language. Whereas monolingual babies are only able to identify one language, multilingual babies are able to identify and distinguish sounds in all the different languages they are exposed to.
This gives multilingual babies a head start in language learning and a strong foundation for overall cognitive development. This is particularly important because it has been argued that learning multiple languages translates into better performance in other subject areas.
Therefore, if anyone ever tells you exposing babies and children to multiple languages will confuse them, just direct them to this blog
Speaking multiple languages increases cognitive ability
There is an extensive amount of research which provides evidence that speaking multiple languages improves the executive functioning skills of the brain in multiple ways. For starters, memory plays a huge part in learning language, so its no surprise that multilinguals often have better memory than those who speak a single language.
Then there is the boost to information processing and multitasking, which makes perfect sense. Consider that the brain of a multilingual person must be able to understand information provided in multiple languages and switch between languages at any given time.
Lastly, there’s a study that says speaking multiple languages can even help make more rational decisions!
Speaking multiple languages protects the brain during aging
Conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are very common in an aging population. The reduced incidence of such conditions in Ghana and other African countries has often been attributed to underreporting and poor availability of data.
Here’s something else to consider; speaking multiple languages can protect the brain against dementia and delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by 5 years. It is possible that people who speak multiple languages suffer the same amount of brain damage due to aging. However, the typical symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease such as memory loss and confusion all set in much later in life. Multilingualism, how’s that for a super power.
Multiple languages means multiple perspectives
If you speak more than one language then you will know that somethings just don’t translate between languages. Even when they do translate, somethings “sound better” in one language over the other. This means that the way you express yourself will change between languages, possibly even your expression of love.
It goes even further than this as research suggests that bilinguals literally see the world differently. On the moderate side, this manifests as differences in perception of color variations. On the extreme side, this could manifest as multiple personalities. Some people feel “like a different person” when they switch languages. For example, there is evidence that bilinguals emphasize different character traits depending on which language they are speaking (the Ga language is on my mind right now).
I have not even touched on the increased job opportunities that comes with being multilingual, the enhanced communication skills and the ease of travel. Being able to speak a little bit of a local language is not only endearing but will probably save you from getting ripped off. The are many more benefits to multilingualism that is yet unexplored but Dr. Thomas Bak (@thbaketal) does a great in this article to get us all thinking.
For now Google translate and the growth of voice language translator devices are reducing the impact of language barriers but they do very little for delaying dementia onset. My advice, consider learning a new language, it’s never too late. You will thank me for it when you are 90 years old and calling for a diaper change in four different languages.