Who are bilinguals?

It used to be a commonly held belief that bilinguals are specifically those who speak two languages from childhood, but currently the definition is not so strict: basically, if you speak two languages fluently, not necessarily being a native speaker of both, you can be considered a bilingual. 

Since we live in an increasingly globalized world, it is not surprising that monolinguals, people who speak only one language, are a minority. That is perhaps one of the reasons why research into the benefits of speaking multiple languages compared to one is so popular at the moment – it might soon come a time when we don’t have anyone to compare bilinguals or multilinguals to. 

The perks of being a speaker multiple languages

Current research says that if you speak more than one language, you can be expecting to experience some cool effects like: 

  • Experience the world and behave differently depending on the language you are speaking or the language environment you are in. Research has shown (see, for instance, here or here) that bilinguals tend to behave differently accommodating to the context and culture of the language they are currently using. When learning a language we invariably learn some common behavioral traits of the native speakers, aspects of their culture and traditions, and thus tend to act accordingly. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that the way we perceive emotions also depends on the language – and it can be that the same message in different languages you speak causes a slightly different reaction. 

  • Age a little longer. It has been shown that older bilinguals demonstrate better memory and executive control than their monolingual counterparts, which paves the way to research into healthy aging and the factors that can contribute to that. One other field of research centers around the hypothesis that bilingualism can delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases associated with age, such as Alzheimer’s. 

  • Have it easier at school – at least when learning another language. It is believed that people who speak multiple languages have to constantly suppress all of them but the one they are currently using to avoid interference. In turn, this practice of constant control may help multilinguals perform better at tasks when they are dealing with conflicting input and need to focus only on one of its attributes, ignoring others (such as the Stroop test, for instance). That may also be the reason why it is relatively easier for bilinguals to learn a new language – thanks to the practice of focusing on the information about it and avoiding interference from the languages they know. 

Credit: National Cancer Institute (@nci) on Unsplash

Credit: National Cancer Institute (@nci) on Unsplash

The research of the brain structure hasn't revealed any definitive conclusions on the robust effects of bilingualism specifically on the way our brains develop or perform different tasks. But we can say for sure that one obvious bonus of speaking another language is a multitude of new cultural experiences and communication opportunities that you get access to – a whole new world opens up when you begin discovering a new language. 

What about the cost? 

Historically, research on bilingualism actually started out on identifying the disadvantages of speaking more than one language. 

For instance, it was believed that children shouldn’t be learning another language before mastering their native tongue at a sufficient level first. This didn’t find its confirmation, though it has been demonstrated now that sometimes the knowledge of more than one language can increase the occurrence of tip-of-the-tongue states – when you are trying to remember the word but can only think of its meaning or the letter it starts with. This can be especially awkward or at least a little uncomfortable when as a bilingual you are talking to someone who speaks only one of your languages. In this case, the price you pay is not in your mental capacities but rather in your personal connections. 

Credit: Leon (@jasongoodman_youxventures) on Unsplash

Credit: Leon (@jasongoodman_youxventures) on Unsplash

It has been shown that in experiments when they need to name pictures bilinguals do it longer than monolinguals and the constant need to control for language interference may lead to them tiring quicker. However, so far there seems to be no significant disadvantages associated with speaking multiple languages. 

Enter... publication bias 

In recent years, there has been quite a lot of skepticism towards research on the effects of speaking multiple languages on various domains – be that cognitive functions, neural structure, or aging. The reason behind it is the detected publication bias: it turned out that among the studies presented at various conferences those that demonstrated benefits of bilingualism were more likely to be published than the studies that found no such benefits. 

Unfortunately, in this sense science is not a perfect institution yet – but as the problem has been identified, it is more likely to be addressed in the coming years. So we are currently at a rather exciting stage: in the future, we can witness either the continuing rise of multilingualism or its eventual fall from the pedestal. After all, almost any habitual practice has its effects on our brains, performance of specific tasks, and sometimes even behavior. Let’s see if bilingualism proves to be unique! 

In the meantime, however, speakers of multiple languages can still enjoy the relatively broader cultural horizons and explore both the world and their own personalities in different languages. 

If you want to discover your Russian side, head over to our Speak Like a Russian series to pick up some of the most widespread colloquial phrases.