"If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world."
Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had plenty to say on the topic of being bilingual back in the early 20th century. Today, nearly 100 years later, it's safe to say the 'ole wordsmith would be proud.
It's estimated that more than half of the world's population is bilingual, according to Psychology Today. That means about 3.5 billion people use more than one language to communicate every day.
There are commonly held benefits attributed to these casual script swappers, most of them suggesting an increase in cognitive processing, focus and the ability to multi-task. But to people who identify as bilingual or multilingual, the benefits are usually more concrete and personal. Here are a few firsthand accounts we gathered from multilinguals that help explain the daily benefits of being able to speak multiple languages.
You can understand and appreciate cultural references and nuances.
Most works of art and popular culture are more honestly represented in their native language. Listening to a song, reading a classic novel, watching a movie -- these are expressions that bilinguals typically have the advantage of appreciating in their original form.
Because sometimes, even little things like movie titles or song lyrics can get misinterpreted:
"Being able to talk to my grandmother, realizing where words in English come from, being able to sing Beny Moré songs." -- Roque, New York, English, Spanish & Portuguese
"I always feel I put my French double major to use when I can understand the French part in "Partition" by Beyoncé." -- Lauren, New York, English & French
Bilingualism can create job opportunities and help you navigate the world.
Many of the people we asked held one common belief: Being bilingual, and especially multilingual, can help facilitate your travels. When languages share similar words and patterns, it's easier to apply your knowledge of one language to another and thus make your way around certain regions of the world.
In addition, it's no secret that employers see language skills as a benefit for a prospective employee. There's one qualification that employers can't seem to get enough of, and that's fluency in a foreign language:
"I did translation work for the government. I happened to be the only person in a 400 mile radius that spoke the language they wanted." -- Thera, New York, English & Portuguese
"I think for me it's being able to travel around Europe and being able to communicate in a few countries, as I speak French, English, Italian and Spanish." -- Cosima, New York, English, French, Spanish & Italian
Photo by photographerglen via Flickr
You notice and appreciate the things that are sometimes lost in translation.
We live in an increasingly globalized world where many cultural subtleties can slip through the cracks as we're trying to understand past each other's different dialects. Allowing yourself to be immersed in another language means opening the door to an entirely new culture and way of viewing the world.
Not everything that's translated can be easily understood. Sometimes cultural context is needed:
"The way languages are formed and slang is created can often say a lot about the people speaking it. Knowing Spanish is also helpful in learning new languages, especially Romance languages." -- Carolina, New York, English, Spanish & French
"Living in globalized and multicultural society, it has become critical more than ever that we have the ability and willingness to interact with many different kinds people, all bringing their diverse languages and subtle nuances." -- Gabriel, Los Angeles, English & Spanish
Image via Giphy
You feel a sense of connection with your heritage, history and family.
For many, speaking another language keeps them connected to their families. Imagine not being able to communicate with your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles simply because you don't share a common language.
As the popular saying goes, "you can't know where you're going until you know where you've been" -- and for some, language provides that journey:
"I think the most beneficial thing is being able to communicate with my family. And as a little side bonus, some people don't know that I'm Iranian, so they'll speak Farsi around me not knowing that I understand but little do they know, I do." -- Azad, Los Angeles, English & Farsi
"It gives me a sense of pride and connection to my heritage. I honestly believe the fact that I can speak another language with my family brings us closer together. It reminds us where we've come from and how far we've come." -- Bryant, Chicago, English & Korean
"The biggest benefit is being able to communicate with my parents. As simple as that sounds, I’ve seen many first generation immigrant families struggle with this -– the parents never fully assimilate and the children grow up 'Americanized,' resulting in almost an internal culture clash within families." -- Cindy, New York, English & Korean
Photo by Cindy Bark
Your interactions with people of different cultures go deeper.
When you speak someone's native language, you can talk about a lot more than the weather and other daily fillers. Building deep and meaningful relationships with foreign communities usually involves speaking and understanding, partially at least, the same language.
Either that or you must be one hell of a charades player:
"It's comforting when traveling to foreign countries and being able to speak their language -- the locals appreciate it and make you feel more at home.
"Also, you are always the person who your friends call when they have a visitor from abroad and you speak their language. So you'll always have occasions of meeting and going out with new people." -- Elias, Lebanon, English, Arabic & French
"Being able to speak multiple languages means having the capacity to engage with people in more organic and sincere ways.
"When thinking about bilingualism or the ability to speak multiple languages (in addition to being multi-racial), I think about the benefits with regards to professional career trajectories and the ability to connect with a broader range of people." -- Walter, Stanford, California, English & Spanish
"Now the fun part comes from, personally, not having to speak every word in each language. I love that I can speak Spanglish or Portuñol and the people I am speaking with understand what I am saying. I have created a completely different language hybrid that is easily accepted by friends, however not recognized academically." --Érica, Los Angeles, English, Spanish & Portuguese
Photo by Franckreporter via Getty
And lastly, your self-expression excitingly takes on a multitude of forms.
Some even suggest that multilinguals have multiple personalities, acting differently when speaking in various languages. As a trilingual myself, I'd have to agree with that theory -- because some words just plain don't exist in other languages, which at the very least means different ways of expression depending on the language I'm speaking:
"You can talk in a different way than you do in English. Just the way we tell stories, or jokes, it's just a completely different way of story telling, which is nice because you can understand people in a different way. Things can be hilarious in Arabic, but not so hilarious in English-- you just see it in a different light.
"It reminds me that just because I'm an American, doesn't mean I can't be in touch with my culture and grasp a completely different way of life, and that's very special. Not just grasp, engage.
"Engaging is a very, very fragile gift I think, and when you can speak another language, you have that ability to immerse yourself in that culture even more." -- Stephanie, Los Angeles, English, Arabic & French
Image via Giphy
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Wittgenstein was alive during the 18th century.