The Benefits of Bilingualism

By Nikhita Datar

Edited by Natalie Grace Sipula

[3 minute read]

The power of language is undebatable – it has the ability to break down barriers and connect people from different parts of the globe. Meeting someone who can speak the same language as you can be comforting as there is already an established level of familiarity with the person, and the more languages you know, the more common this experience is. Did you know that beyond communicating with more people, knowing multiple languages also has a lot of personal and scientific benefits as well? 

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According to an opinion piece in The New York Times by Yudhijit Bhattacharjeee titled ‘Why Bilinguals Are Smarter,’ “Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.” So being bilingual doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the next Albert Einstein (there are a lot of bilinguals in the world, but only one Einstein), but scientists and research have demonstrated that there is a connection between increased cognitive abilities and those who are able to speak more than one language. 

I was always aware that I was able to communicate with many people differently – I knew I would talk to my friends at school differently (in a different language) than I would my grandparents, but I never thought anything of it. I primarily speak English and Kannada (a language spoken predominantly by the people of Karnataka in the southwestern region of India), and I can also speak some Hindi, Marathi, Spanish, and Korean. The majority of the languages I know I picked up from my grandparents and parents from a young age, so I learned them much faster. Knowing multiple languages has been a benefit to me because it has allowed me the opportunity to connect with a greater number of people, especially extended family that live abroad who I would have otherwise had difficulty getting to know. I can understand a greater amount of people, and it allows me to see humanity in a different and more nuanced way. 

Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Bilingualism calls on capacities to learn the two languages, keep the sounds straight, switch deftly between them and so on.” Ideally as a bilingual you should be able to switch between the two languages you speak comfortably. For me, as much as I can switch back and forth as needed, the challenge lies in finding words that have a similar meaning in another language. Often times, my brain gets stuck on a niche word in one language that seems like it can’t be translated into the other language. The phrase, “I don’t know what the translation of that in English is,” is something I’m a little too familiar with. In these moments, I don’t exactly feel the improved cognitive function that is supposed to come with knowing multiple languages. 

But in other moments, I do. I feel smart, and I feel excited when I can translate for others or when I can teach people phrases from another language. It’s a great thing to be able to seamlessly go from talking to my roommates in our apartment to talking to my grandmother over the phone.  As someone who is able to speak different languages, it’s certainly exciting to know that my brain has somewhat of a superpower thanks to this ability of mine. But I think that the part that’s even more exciting is the fact that being multilingual allows me to interact with a greater number of people, allowing me more opportunity to learn and share more stories. There are words that can’t be translated from one language to another but being able to understand others will always be the best superpower. 

I’ll conclude by saying that learning multiple languages is one of the best things I have done, and I encourage everyone else to do the same. What are you waiting for? Start learning another language! 

Featured Image by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Nikhita is a sophomore double-majoring in Pharmacology & Drug Development and Cinema & Media Studies. Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Nikhita speaks English, Hindi, Kannada, Spanish, Korean, and some ASL and Marathi. From a young age, Nikhita has always been fond of traveling and experiencing new cultures. She loves to meet and connect with people from different backgrounds and find similar cross-culturally shared experiences. At USC, Nikhita works as a student research assistant at the Institute for Addiction Science, is an undergraduate research fellow at the Korean Studies Institute, and is an Arts & Entertainment writer for the Daily Trojan. She is the Vice President of Production for Film and Television Writers of USC and is a member of the Student Symphony Orchestra. In her free time, she loves trying new foods, dancing, watching films, painting, or reading–anything creative.