Why Multilingualism Counts for So Much

As a translator and as someone that is surrounded by multilingual individuals on a daily basis at work, I’d have to say that I find the process and the effort of grappling with various languages to be enormously rewarding.  As somebody that grew up in a multilingual home I am convinced it is something that only benefits the human mind.

It turns out that this notion, which has been propounded by linguists and pedagogists for ages already, is beginning to garner a bit of scientific credibility.  In a recent study conducted upon request of the European Commission and in conjunction with the Academy of Finland and Jyväskylä University, the issue of the effects of multilingualism on the human brain is researched from a variety of angles.

The study, titled “The Contribution of Multilingualism to Creativity,” utilized various different aspects of recent neuroscience research to comprehend the effects of learning and using more than one language on the way humans use their brains.  Among the chief findings is strong evidence that multilingualism enhances human memory capacity (particularly short-term memory) and therefore is beneficial to mastering complex thought processes.  The suggestion, in the report’s own terms, is that this kind of benefit could likely spill over into various other aspects of brain functioning, enhancing levels of creativity, improving capacity for interpersonal communication, and perhaps even staving off the onset of mental deterioration in the Golden Years.

What’s more, the benefits in brain functioning detected by the study do not only come after mastering one or more non-native languages: the evidence points to the fact that from nearly the very beginning of the process of learning a new language certain changes in brain circuitry begin to take place.  Surely this is an incentive to the many people out there intent on learning a new language who fret that there are no perceptible benefits to the process.

Of course, the earlier the better when it comes to multilingualism, and hopefully this particular study will help spur language education at schools internationally in a positive direction.  In this regard, the researchers confirmed that it is more effective for students to learn a new language by embedding it into other subject areas (what are known as “immersion programs” in many schools) rather than simply teaching the language as its own subject.  Handling math or other “practical” subjects in the new language seems to help students advance at a faster rate.

Read this article if you’d like to read some more on the topic.