The perks of being bilingual: superior social skills

The perks of being bilingual: superior social skills

Photo by Alborzagros / wikimedia

We all know some of the rather obvious advantages of being bilingual. Learning more than one language enables new experiences, gives you more freedom in your interactions with foreigners and it is an overall extremely valuable asset.

But what about some other, less obvious, perks of bilingualism? Over the last decade, researchers have uncovered and demonstrated the advantages people speaking more than one language have over those sticking with just their native language. For instance, they found bilingual children may enjoy certain cognitive benefits, such as improved executive function, critical for problem solving and other mentally demanding activities.

One recent study, conducted by psychology scholars from the University of Chicago and published last year in the journal Psychological Science, finds that multilingual children have enhanced communication skills compared to monolingual children.

The team selected a group of children in the United States, ages 4 to 6, from different linguistic backgrounds, and presented them with a situation in which they had to consider someone else’s perspective to understand her meaning.

Katherine Kinzler, one of the authors of the study, wrote for The New York Times: “We found that bilingual children were better than monolingual children at this task. If you think about it, this makes intuitive sense. Interpreting someone’s utterance often requires attending not just to its content, but also to the surrounding context”.

The study also found that children who were monolingual yet regularly exposed to another language — for example, those who had family members who spoke another language — were just as talented as the bilingual children at this task.

The team then gave all the children a standard cognitive test of executive function. Based on the results, they found that bilingual children performed better than monolingual children.

“Multilingual exposure, it seems, facilitates the basic skills of interpersonal understanding . The social advantage we have identified appears to emerge from merely being raised in an environment in which multiple languages are experienced, not from being bilingual per se”, Kinzler concluded.