Multilingualism is the ability to speak more than two different languages fluently. Contrary to what some societies believe, the vast majority of the world’s population is either bilingual or multilingual. With over 5,000 distinct languages spoken around the world, numerous words are “borrowed” by different languages to create a global definition of specific names, nouns, or descriptions. In many ways, each person is multilingual in some ways.
Because there are several different definitions of multilingualism, it can be challenging to develop specific advantages and disadvantages to the practice. Some people are born into situations where they must learn multiple languages in their youth because that is the only way to function in society successfully. Others are born into monolingualism and must begin the process of learning at a later age. Some people can read in another language, but then struggle to speak in it.
It takes the average person about six months to begin developing fluency in a different language with daily studies. Some people can catch on much sooner than that. Once you are successful in learning your first new language to become bilingual, it is much easier to become multilingual. Ziad Fazah is the current world record holder for the number of languages that he can speak with a total of 58.
Although some language experts claim to know more than 100 languages, Cardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti could prove that he could speak 39 different languages. Sir John Bowring claimed he knew 200 different languages. Kenneth Hale became fluent in 45 new languages as well, sometimes being able to have a basic conversation with someone after just 10-15 minutes of listening to them.
If you are thinking about learning a new language this year, then these are the advantages and disadvantages of multilingualism to consider.
List of the Advantages of Multilingualism
1. You have more career prospects available to you because of multilingualism.
When you can speak multiple languages, then your value as an employee increases exponentially with each new language that you learn. In San Francisco, over 50% of the families who are looking for a nanny want to hire someone who is fluent in a language other than their own – and that doesn’t always mean it is Spanish. The idea is that when children are exposed to multiple languages from birth, then they are simply learning two first languages instead of a primary and then secondary option.
Exposing children early on to new languages gives them a head start in their future career. If you can learn even one new language, then you can earn up to 15% more in salary for the average position. Each additional language that you know can raise that level by another 10%.
2. It creates an opportunity for early diversity.
Ask the average child what they care most about in life and it won’t be cultural issues, political debates, or the status of immigration or religion. Kids want to spend their time playing video games, making friends, being challenged at school, and having fun whenever they can. Having access to a multilingual education provides an opportunity to celebrate the diversity found in human cultures.
Multilingualism is a chance to learn from differences instead of being scared of them. When we take the time to learn about different cultures and ethnicities, then the diversity this education provides offers added strength and self-confidence to the individual. People have a better sense of knowing where they fit in society when they have access to the bigger picture.
3. Multilingualism improves a person’s working memory.
A multilingual education works to improve the working memory of the individual learning multiple secondary languages. This improvement provides for better information processing capabilities when there is exposure to new audio stimuli, ideas, concepts and real-life experiences. At the same time, individuals who pursue a multilingual educational opportunity experience lower levels of fear and anxiety while being less likely to experience a mental health disorder.
People who can speak multiple languages also tend to have more friends when compared to single-language students, despite the isolative qualities that some students can experience in their communities. When you can communicate with more people fluently, then there is a corresponding rise in the number of conversations that can eventually lead to a friendship forming.
4. Learning one new language makes it easier to learn more.
Once a second language has been learned and a student can officially call themselves “bilingual,” it becomes much easier for that person to learn a third language, and then a fourth, and so on. each additional language that an individual can pick up with fluency will makes it that much easier to start speaking another language quickly. Bilingual education opportunities encourage brain growth, trigger student concentration, and reduces the amount of time required to transition between task switches.
People who can speak more than one language are up to 10% more productive than someone who is monolingual. Multilingualism also promotes “super-tasking,” which is a form of multitasking that allows people to switch from task-to-task without delays. Only 2% of the population has this capability. With this ability required when you are trilingual or beyond, you can become a tremendous asset for a future employer or in the growth of your own business opportunity.
5. Being multilingual allows for individual wisdom to develop.
Although there are numerous definitions for wisdom, people develop this trait because of their personal life experiences. People who are described as being “old souls” have extensive experiences that are unique compared to the “average” person in society. When you have the opportunity to pursue multilingualism, then you can access more personal experiences through the lens of different cultures. Your fluency can make it possible to study overseas, hold conversations with different community groups, or even watch different television challenges.
Learning about different cultures is essential to the educational process, but the benefits of experiencing them personally are far greater. When an individual has access to greater wisdom when making decisions, then they can better process the difference between right and wrong in their lives. That makes it a lot easier to keep choosing the proper path to take.
6. You can travel with more convenience because you understand what others are saying.
Although one of the disadvantages of speaking multiple languages is an almost constant need to prove your nationality, being multilingual makes it a lot easier to travel around the world. You might be asked to speak in your home language or offer your passport as evidence when making your way through customs, but the benefits here almost always outweigh the negatives. Knowing what you are ordering at a restaurant, asking for directions to a specific destination, or requesting a recommendation are all much easier when you can speak the local language instead of trying to use Google Translate.
7. The brain benefits from multiple positive cognitive benefits.
When you are multilingual, then it is not only your working memory that improves as you pursue each new secondary language. Your overall attention span improves when compared to those who can only speak one language. There is even a lower risk of experiencing a stroke if you can speak at least two languages instead of being monolingual. This advantage can occur very early in life as well, with children as young as 7 months having the capacity to adjust to changes in their environment better. Adults who speak multiple languages also experience less overall cognitive decline during the natural aging process.
8. There are several health benefits linked to being multilingual.
You will discover that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that multilingualism creates numerous positive impacts on the overall health of your brain. Even speaking one additional language can help you to reduce the onset of dementia. There are lower risks of experiencing Alzheimer’s disease if you speak multiple languages too. Multilingualism will also improve your stroke recovery time, reduce your overall stress levels, and it can reduce anxiety because you’re naturally open to more ideas.
9. People who are multilingual are more open-minded than monolingual individuals.
Charlemagne once made the observation that “to speak another language is to hold a second soul in your possession.” When you have the ability to pursue multilingualism, then you are getting to perceive the world in a different way. Each language allows you to access a culture that might have a different take on an idea under debate. Some people who are trilingual or above say that their fluency in multiple languages sometimes makes it feel like they are trying to juggle multiple personalities.
10. You can teach the benefits of multilingualism to the next generation.
If you know how to speak multiple languages, then you can pass this trait onto your children with relative ease. All that you need to do is speak all of the languages at home regularly. Your children will understand language instructions from an early age, even before they can start to read individual words. Giving them this natural ability from the onset of their childhood means that your efforts to learn something new can transition to multiple generations down the line if your kids continue the practice.
11. You’re not in the minority any more.
Some people decide that multilingualism is not for them because it would make them feel different in their community. One of the biggest misconceptions about language fluency is that it is a rare phenomenon to be bilingual, much less trilingual. Over half of the world’s population speaks at least two different languages regularly every day. Many countries consider bilingualism to be the norm and may even require a third (or more) language to be learned as part of the schooling process. Everyone who wants to learn a new language should have the opportunity to do so.
List of the Disadvantages of Multilingualism
1. You might struggle to get along in monolingual societies.
When you can speak multiple languages fluently, then monolingual societies will often group your ability into the overall conversation of immigration. Some people see the effort to speak multiple languages as a desire to create open borders in their country, so they oppose any effort to speak anything other than the first language. You can see this disadvantage heavily prevalent in the United States when there is an effort to speak Spanish in addition to English. In severe situations, being multilingual could cause some people to become isolated from their communities because there are viewed as being an elitist.
2. There might be a lack of skilled educators in your community.
Thanks to the online resources that are available today that can help anyone become multilingual, this disadvantage is slowly disappearing. If you do not have Internet access at home or your connection is slow, then you might find yourself forced to rely on local instructors who can help you to begin learning a new language. In many of today’s small towns, this is a resource that is not available. If no one in your family is bilingual or multilingual either, then you may not have any other option available to you to start the learning process. Many instructors are already struggling to meet the regulated demands for educational performance already, so trying to add another language into the curriculum is almost too much to ask.
3. It requires a complete immersion in the language to be effective.
Children often learn multiple languages quickly because they have not yet had the opportunity to establish a definition of “normal” for their primary language. As people get older, their routines and language habits make it challenging to obtain a complete immersion in a second language. Resources like LingoHut can help you to become conversationally fluent without a cost if you have a data connection, but even then, self-discipline is necessary to continue using the secondary language fluently.
4. Studying new languages can shift the focus of a student.
When multilingual schools use different languages for instruction throughout the day, then the priority becomes how fluent students are in each one instead of focusing on their core subject matter. Even when schools create these learning programs for after school activities, you will find some people ignore the other parts of the curriculum to ensure that they are getting the new language down to the best of their ability.
If students fall behind in the learning curve for a new language, then trying to catch up on their essential life skills can become a challenge. Although it may be important to become multilingual for future career options, a well-rounded education is essential as well. We must provide a societal structure where both are emphasized with equal importance.
5. Multilingualism can lead to fewer relationships.
People who speak multiple languages are often regarded in a different light by society in general. It is not unusual for people who can speak more than a dozen languages to be placed on a pedestal for this accomplishment. It is not unusual for students who are enrolled in multilingual programs to find themselves only making friends with the others who are in the same class as they are. You will receive more exposure to different cultures when you pursue multilingualism, but it can sometimes come at the cost of forming relationships with other people.
It can almost become a circus act with the requests that people have of you when you know multiple languages. It is not unusual for someone to ask you to say something in a different language. “What is my name in this language?”
6. Your parents use the secondary language to communicate that you are in trouble.
When you grow up in a household that is multilingual, then you will know that you are in trouble because your parents or guardians always use the secondary languages to communicate with you. There is a certain logic to this behavior because it creates a level of privacy for that conversation if most other people in your community do not know what is being said. At the same time, anyone can detect anger or frustration in the voice of another, no matter what language is being spoken. That can make it be an embarrassing encounter even when the intent might be to do the opposite.
7. Your phone is not going to understand what you want to say.
One of the most frustrating aspects of being multilingual involves the auto-correct function on your phone. If you are trying to text in a language other than the primary one set for your device, then the “misspelled words” will adapt to the first language equivalent whenever possible. Even if you are trying to offer a straightforward phrase as a text, trying to send out the message can become an exercise in patience.
Anna Pujol-Mazzini offered the example of trying to say in Italian, “Today, I have to go to the market, and after we can meet at the restaurant at seven.” When typing this text outside of English, numerous words auto-correct to create an incomprehensible sentence that must be fixed. If you dictate your texts, then this issue can become even worse.
8. You can start to mix the different languages together as you speak.
When you can speak multiple languages fluently, then it is not unusual to mix the different languages together when having a conversation. If you like to invent new words with your primary language, then you may experience this disadvantage more often. You might also find yourself throwing out different terms as things happen to you throughout the day. As Pujol-Mazzini describes this disadvantage in The Local, her friends would turn to her and say, “Stop showing off just because you can speak another language!”
You must constantly focus on the language you are speaking to avoid messing up what you’re saying. Even with constant vigilance, it is not unusual to start a sentence in one language, and then end it in another.
A Final Thought on the Advantages and Disadvantages of Multilingualism
When push comes to shove, people are going to make fun of you no matter what language you happen to speak. It doesn’t matter how fluent you are in any of them – including your primary language. When you mess up a word or phrase, then people will laugh. There are times when you will offer a new pronunciation or invent a word in your attempts to communicate with this ability.
The tricky issue that some people face with multilingualism is the issue of having multiple people with this skill in a community, but there are no shared languages between everyone. You can speak over 100 different languages and still find yourself struggling to communicate when all of the other people speak something other than what you know.
The pros and cons of multilingualism are essential to balance on a personal level. If you love to learn and want to give yourself more career options, then make them effort to transition from being bilingual to becoming trilingual. Even though there are times when having a conversation might feel strange, the ability to communicate on a personal level in multiple cultures is an advantage that can put you on the road to success.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.