What Does it Mean to be Bilingual?
Bilingualism is an important skill, especially now that people from all over the planet are more connected than ever. A bilingual person has more chances of getting ahead in the job market, traveling more comfortably, and having an easier time getting in touch with multiple cultures. Bilingualism and multilingualism even sharpen the brain and are known to make people better problem solvers.
As you can see, there are numerous benefits, but what does it actually mean to be bilingual?
A bilingual person is someone who can speak two languages fluently. Of course, the definition of ‘fluent’ isn’t the same for every person.
When people try to define what it means for someone to be fluent, they ask questions such as:
- What is the person’s reading level in each language?
- Can the person hold a conversation in each language?
- Can the person translate all or most of the words they know into either language?
- How quickly can the person form sentences in either language?
- How well do they understand or are immersed in the cultures of both languages?
Overall, a person is considered fluent if they can speak at an intermediate or advanced level in two languages.
How do People Become Bilingual?
There are three main ways that a person can become bilingual. The first two usually occur when people are children, and the last one can happen at any time in a person’s life.
Many children learn two languages simultaneously as they learn to speak because parents or caregivers use both languages in the household. Parents and family members may switch between two languages depending on who they’re talking to or because they feel they can make a particular point better in one of the languages instead of the other. It also isn’t uncommon for parents to purposefully teach their children two languages.
The second reason often overlaps with the first, and it is when someone learns two languages at an early age because the language they speak at home isn’t the same as the one that the society they live in speaks. In this scenario, the child is often more fluent in the language spoken at home until they enter school.
The last way someone becomes bilingual is by learning a new language either at school, at a language program, or by themselves. There are lots of reasons people choose to learn another language, the most common of which include:
- So they can communicate when traveling
- They are interested in a specific language or culture
- So they can be more employable
- To better understand a romantic partner, family, friend, or to better appreciate their culture
What are the Benefits of Being Bilingual?
People who learn another language, especially as children, gain a lot of benefits that monolinguals (people who only know one language) don’t enjoy.
Knowing two languages can sharpen the brain and give a person a better attention span and reasoning and problem-solving skills. A bilingual person also has less chance of developing dementia.
Knowing more than one language gives the brain a great workout. When speaking in your native language, you only use the left side of the brain, but when talking in a different language, both sides are activated. By giving your brain this exercise, you strengthen multiple parts of the brain.
Bilingualism even changes the structure of the brain. Someone who can speak two languages has a greater amount of white matter in their frontal and temporal lobe, making them better at executive functioning and language skills.
Furthermore, contrary to the understanding decades ago that assumed that teaching small children a new language would confuse them, the best time for a child to learn a new language is between zero and three years old. In fact, 27% of children in the United States learn more than one language at home, and their first language is not affected by learning a new one. Children can even learn two languages at once with minimal confusion.
As an adult, a bilingual or multilingual person is more desirable in the job market. Since the world is more connected than ever before, jobs want people who can speak in different languages so they can open themselves up to foreign markets. Besides being able to speak to more people, many employers understand the other mental benefits of a multilingual person, like better problem-solving skills.
Finally, a person learning a new language ends up learning more about the culture of the people who speak that language. Some people choose to learn a new language because they want to understand their heritage or another culture that interests them. Learning about new languages also makes a person more creative because they can see the world from new angles and perspectives.
What Percentage of People are Bilingual?
Forty-three percent of the world’s population is bilingual. About 17% of the world can speak more than two languages, with the percentage breaking down as so:
- Trilingual (three languages) – 13%
- People who can speak more than four languages – 3%
- Polyglots (five languages or more) – less than 1%
The number of bilingual people also varies widely depending on the region. In the United States, only about 20% of the population knows more than one language. In Europe, it jumps to 56%. Compare these numbers with South Africa, where 83% of people are bilingual or multilingual.
Some countries even have more than one official language. For example, India has the most official languages, with 23 listed. Other countries, like Lebanon and Pakistan, make it compulsory for children to learn more than one language while in school.
The Bottom Line
Overall, being bilingual means that you can fluently speak two languages. Once you move past the basic definition, bilingualism means a lot more. A bilingual person’s mind gets great exercise and, thus, gains better function.
Learning a new language also makes a person more employable and allows them to travel comfortably to more destinations. A new language can even help a person learn more about different cultures.