Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Benefits of Bilingualism, or My Educational Regrets

My new international buddies!
Besides friendly locals and deep-fried treats, I initially chose to study in Scotland because it is an English-speaking country.  Like many Americans, I know little more than a few words of any language other than English, and until recently, this has never been a problem for me.  Over the past week though, I seriously regretted never learning another language.

This remorse started when I met up with a group of international students from my university.  While they come from all over Europe, most of them speak German.  My new friends have been so accommodating, speaking English even when I'm the only non-German speaker present.  Still, in their presence, I feel embarrassed.  I'm often the only monolingual person at parties and pub nights!

Only speaking English isn't considered disadvantage in this day and age.  English has become the world's common language, the lingua franca that scientists, politicians, and (of course) travelers rely on.  Still, by never becoming fluent in another language, I feel that I've put myself at a cultural and cognitive disadvantage.  Words are representative of society, so learning how to communicate in another language is a means of fully immersing oneself in an unfamiliar culture. For instance, learning that the Inuit people have multiple words for “snow,” gives insight into their perception of weather.

In addition to gaining cultural insight, learning a second language enhances cognitive strength.  A study at York University in Toronto demonstrated that multilingual individuals are better able to cope with Alzheimer’s disease than monolingual people.  According to Dr. Ellen Bialystok “Switching between languages is a stimulating activity — it is like carrying out brain exercises which builds up higher levels of what we call brain or cognitive reserve.”  By failing to learn a second language, I fail to develop extra brainpower!

I would love to blame the American education system for my language-deficiency, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair.  I had 6 years of French classes in high school, all taught by kind and capable teachers.  In truth, I failed to learn French because of my own complacency; “why should I bother?” I thought, “Everybody speaks English.”

Now that I understand how shortsighted and ignorant this was, I'm eager to start learning another language.  Even though I know it will be a while until I can fully devote myself to this, I hope that once I have my masters degree, I'll have the time to take some French, Spanish, or German classes.  For now, though, learning German curse words in a pub will have to do.