March 9, 2016 by Boris


Firstly, I would like to thank this excellent little video on TEDEd “The benefits of a bilingual brain – Mia Nacamulli” which kind of inspired me to write this little post about bilingualism as myself, living abroad for several years already could occasionally even identify myself as trilingual – being native German, very fluent in French due my school career at a French high school which even was rewarded with the Baccalauréat ES, and also being proficient in English as a result of my several years living abroad in Hong Kong.

It is hard to estimate the exact number of bilingual people in the world, as there is a lack of reliable statistics. Studies suggest that roughly half of the world’s population is bilingual.

So what about you? Are you bilingual? Or rather – how bilingual are you?


To answer that question, first we need to establish what being bilingual means. Contrary to what most people might think bilingualism is not a categorical variable (i.e., ‘you are either bilingual or not’), but a multidimensional construct composed of two linked parts. The first of these is language proficiency, and the second is language use.

I, for example, am — or used to be — proficient in French, but I have not used my French regularly for quite a while.

The point being: the more proficient you are in a second language, and the more you use it in your daily life, the more bilingual you will be.

Now what are the costs and benefits from being bilingual?

When I speak in English or French, my German is also activated. Both languages are active in the brain of a bilingual person when he or she speaks, and this incurs a processing cost, as the brain needs to do two things at once. This can mean that ‘the verbal skills of bilinguals in each language are generally weaker than those for monolingual speakers of each language’.

Bilingual people tend to produce fewer words. In other words, their individual vocabularies in each language tend to be smaller than that of people who only speak one of those languages.

It is also said that bilingual people also experience ‘nearly twice as many’ tip-of-the-tongue moments (when you can’t find the exact word you want to describe something) than their monolingual peers.

The bilingual brain is used to handling two languages at the same time.
This develops skills for functions such as inhibition (a cognitive mechanism that discards irrelevant stimuli), switching attention, and working memory. Because bilingual people are used to switching between their two languages, they are also better at switching between tasks, even if these tasks are nothing to do with language.

Last but not least, there are ongoing studies linking a higher level of bilingualism to a higher number of different teachers the student previously had or currently has. The explanation behind this is fairly simple: every teacher has a slightly or quite different teaching approach. Also, we all know that in languages, there always exist at least two ways to express the same meaning but using different words. These factors will influence both essential parts of bilingualism: the language proficiency and the language use.

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