Nearly 80% of Americans only speak English. Many native English speakers are complacent in their monolingualism. It’s understandable- English is the most spoken language in the world. It’s the Lingua Franca, often seen as essential to diplomacy and business. Compared to speakers of other languages, English speakers have to worry much less about being able to communicate while traveling- and since the rise of the internet, where English dominates, the number of American schools offering foreign languages has decreased. When your mother tongue is the language that people from all over the world spend their lifetimes learning, it’s easy to abandon the idea of seriously pursuing multilingualism. So why should you?
The research conducted on the cognitive benefits of multilingualism is more vast than what can be adequately summarized. The multilingual brain is proven to perform better in conflict management and tasks regarding control. It’s shown to have higher gray matter volume and sensory processing abilities. Multilingualism improves memory, creativity, and visual spacial skills. Multilingual people are inherently able to see the world through multiple lenses, making them more apt to diverse and flexible approaches while problem-solving. Multilingual individuals are even less likely to be swayed by framing techniques in advertisements or politics and are significantly better decision-makers. These are just a fraction of the conclusions made by researchers and scientists- so what’s holding so many people back? I hypothesize that in a country with an education system that doesn’t commit to ingraining a second language in its citizens since early childhood, by the time Americans recognize the misfortune of their monolingualism, they surrender to the belief that it’s too late. Because most Americans don’t inherit a second language from their society or culture, and there aren’t many accessible places to immerse yourself in a language other than English, it takes a certain level of intrinsic motivation to commit to learning a new one- and when psychologists tell you that your ‘critical period’ of language acquisition was over shortly after puberty, learning a second language can feel futile.
I, too, have felt discouraged by the ‘critical period’ theory of language acquisition. Although it’s true that the older you are, the more difficult it is to learn a language, it isn’t impossible- in fact, the British Academy argues that language learning initiatives for older populations may be an ‘optimal solution for building cognitive reserve’ to stimulate brain areas that are negatively affected as we age.
Personally, I’ve committed to learning a second language because it gives me something to never cease working towards. You can never finish ‘mastering’ any language. For as long as I actively pursue French, I’ll have an insatiable lifetime goal. By no means am I near French fluency, but the times that I’ve been able to successfully communicate with others in French have felt a special kind of rewarding that keeps me wanting to continue. Active language learning is such a palpable way to watch hard work pay off, especially if you learn in adulthood, and the feeling of connecting with someone in their mother tongue brings a fulfillment that I’ll never be done chasing.
It isn’t too late, and you don’t need to book a two month immersion program in Europe to start learning another language. The resources available to learn languages, especially with the internet, are vast- and the benefits and opportunities that you unlock by pursuing multilingualism will ensure that you enjoy the fruits of your labor.