Living in Australia is weird. It’s this great mix of cultures with people from all around the world. One in four Australians has at least one parent who was not born in the country, if that gives you any idea of the diversity. However, I have noticed that most people here only speak English and find it strange that I can speak another language. What is the problem with bilingualism?
I’m from South Africa, and most people speak more than one language. It’s usually your mother tongue (an indigenous language) and English. It’s not uncommon for people to speak three or four languages fluently. I am not one of those people—I only speak two languages and sometimes I can barely manage that. I’m bye-lingual and also hilarious.
I’ve read that in 2021, 22.3% of people living in Australia used a language other than English at home.1 We can only assume that number has grown, seeing as Australia has massive immigration numbers.
Imagine my surprise when I start working at a school here and I find out that many of the kids have parents who speak a foreign language, but they can’t speak it. It seems like either the parents have not bothered to teach the kids the language, or the kids aren’t interested in learning it. Why wouldn’t you learn another language if you had the opportunity?
From what I’ve heard from the kids at school, they may understand the language (best cases), but they can’t speak the language themselves. Following this trend, it’s sad that usually the languages that immigrants bring with them are not spoken anymore after two generations.2
I guess I would understand that parents want their kids to assimilate into society and speak their language. I get that, but does that not make you feel disconnected from your kids that they don’t understand your language? Also, the kids could feel disconnected from you and their extended family if they can’t understand the language.
I also understand the advantages of speaking a foreign language in an English-speaking country. You can talk smack about your kids and their friends right in front of them. It feels so empowering.
Benefits of being bilingual
There are many benefits to being bilingual.
Cognitive: Bilingualism is good for your brain.3 If you are bilingual, your brain is probably more flexible and better at problem solving than your monolingual counterparts.4 You would also have a better working memory than monolinguals.4 Not only that, some studies have shown that being bilingual can delay the onset of dementia.5
Multitasking: Being bilingual makes you better at multitasking. If you have to speak your second language all the time at work or in study, you’re constantly multitasking. Your brain is translating and forming meaning at the same time.6 Also, bilingualism makes you better at multitasking in other non-language-related activities as well.
Your career: Bilingualism can be good for your career.3 In this economy you’ll probably be working from home with people from all over the world, so speaking another language can only help.7 Also, research has found that you can actually earn a higher salary if you are bilingual.6 However, I wouldn’t say that it’s just because you speak a different language, but because of all the advantages that bilingualism gives you to be more productive.
Communication: You can communicate with more people from different parts of the world.3
Language learning: Bilingual children can more easily learn more languages.5 Usually, if you already speak two or more languages, it should be easier to learn another.
Empathy: Speaking more than one language gives people more tolerance towards other people’s cultures and generally makes people more empathetic.5
Drawbacks to being bilingual
I’d argue that there are more advantages than drawbacks to being bilingual. Here are some of those drawbacks:
Bye-lingual. Switching between the languages can be hard.3 Sometimes you can only remember a word or a phrase in one language, and it’s not the one that you’re trying to talk in at that moment. Also, both your language skills need maintaining. If you don’t speak or engage with a language for a long period, you start to lose it. You have to upkeep it by consciously exposing yourself to it.3
I learnt my first and second language at the same time, so it’s not that bad. However, I find myself forgetting words in one or the other language. I’m also aware of this, so I’m constantly asking myself what a word is in my mother tongue or in English. I find that it helps.
Sounding foreign when you speak your second language. Here I’m not referring to having an accent, but to mixing the languages’ idioms or sayings. It can sound off, or just plain confuse people.3
Discrimination, or being treated differently—usually because of your accent.3
Personality changes. Some people feel like they have different personalities when they speak a different language. Like you have differences in your personality when speaking your mother tongue, compared to when you speak your second language.3 Personally, I don’t think this applies to me.
Cultural identity. Seeing as language and culture are so intertwined, you can feel like you are losing your cultural identity, especially if your mother tongue is not spoken in the community you find yourself in.3
What are people’s attitudes toward bi- and multilingualism where you live? Let me know in the comments.
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PPS: I used these sources: