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On the Importance of Bilingualism in 2018…

By Sam Hoyle Faculty

During Parent’s Weekend, I told all the parents in my Spanish classes that they should encourage their children to order Hispanic or Latino food in Spanish and that parents should even take an active role by learning some Spanish with their children. I joked that, aside from the traditionally core courses of Math, English, Science, and History, Spanish and bilingualism had increasing value in the state of California, the rest of the United States and the world. While my comments were tongue in cheek at the time, they could not have been closer to the truth. Learning Spanish or languages other than your native tongue is quickly becoming a crucial part of education and a valuable skill for a truly global citizen. That is a bold statement, so let’s look at the facts.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the Hispanic population of the US reached 57.5 million people in 2016. At a total population of roughly 320 million people, that is nearly 18 percent of the population of the United States and more than 10 million more people than live in the entire country of Spain. It is no surprise either that more than 15 million Hispanic people live here in California, making up almost 40 percent of the population of the state. Even though it might be intuitive, based on recent charged discussions about immigration, that there are vast numbers of Spanish speakers in the United States, these official numbers are staggering. The Census Bureau even projects that the Hispanic population will reach 119 million by 2060 (1). Chances are that our students will need to be able to speak at least basic Spanish more and more in their daily lives, especially as they join the workforce as teachers, doctors, managers, or any position that interacts with the average citizen of our country.

Even during college, students have a high percentage chance of encountering classmates who speak Spanish as either their native or household language. That is not to mention the fact that the number of students that choose to study abroad for at least a semester in college is increasing every year as employer’s search for more internationally skilled employees. According to NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, the number of students studying abroad increased by 3.8 percent from 2015-2016 reaching a total of more than 325,000 students (2). A whopping 54 percent of those students travel to Europe every year, and according to the Institute of International Education (IEE) Spain is the third most visited country in the world, not just Europe, by study abroad students (3). The second largest portion of study abroad students, or 16 percent from 2015-2016, chose to travel to a country in Latin America as well (4). Looking at these data, the value of learning Spanish at the secondary or high school level carries on well into college, especially for students who attend small liberal arts colleges (with strong ski programs), which often encourage or, if they are a language or international studies major, require their students to study abroad for at least one semester. In my experience, study abroad was much cheaper than paying for a semester at a private college, so these trends are a financial boon for parents and students as well.

Perhaps the most exciting new development in the importance of learning bilingualism, however, lies in the development of the brain itself. In 2017, Mia Nacamulli, a renowned educator, gave a TED-Ed talk entitled, “The benefits of a bilingual brain”. Although human being’s study of the brain may be nascent, Mia pointed out some interesting things that doctors are finding through cerebral imaging. She explains that bilingual brains have a, “higher density of grey matter that contains most of your brain’s neurons and synapses” and that there is, “more activity in certain regions of the brain when engaging a second language,” than when only using one. Not surprisingly, your brain simply gets a better work out when you learn and speak two languages, and crucial areas of the brain that control executive functions, like problem solving for example, are sharpened by the increased activity. Though she confirms the old adage that young children absorb language like a sponge because their young brains actually do show more elasticity, she also explains that this, “heightened workout” from speaking a second language can delay the onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia in adults (5). To clarify Mia’s point, young children, teenagers, college students, and even fully-grown adults all benefit from speaking a second language not just in being able to speak respectfully with other people in their native language, but also because their brains are healthier at the cellular level. Maybe now, when I make jokes during the whirlwind of short classes on Parent’s Weekend, I should be more specific that my jokes are a more real than they are funny! Although there are plenty of other reasons to learn a second language, these are just a few that should be great ammunition as students complain about the hundreds of flashcards they are making for my class.

  1. Bureau, US Census. “Newsroom.” FFF: Hispanic Heritage Month 2017, United States Department of Commerce, 31 Aug. 2017, www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2017/hispanic-heritage.html
  2. Association of International Educators. “Trends in U.S. Study Abroad.” Trends in U.S. Study Abroad | NAFSA, NAFSA, 2018, www.nafsa.org/Policy_and_Advocacy/Policy_Resources/Policy_Trends_and_Data/Trends_in_U_S__Study_Abroad/.
  3. Pipia, Alexa. “The 20 Most Popular Destinations for Americans to Study Abroad.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 24 Aug. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/where-american-students-study-abroad-2016-7/.
  4. See citation ii
  5. Nacamulli, Mia. “The Benefits of a Bilingual Brain.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, TED-Ed, June 2015, www.ted.com/talks/mia_nacamulli_the_benefits_of_a_bilingual_brain.

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