In recent years, there has been a lot of research within the field of bilingualism looking at its advantages. One of the ways that being bilingual is beneficial, is that it aids in the ease of learning of new words and also opens up the brain in such a way that information can be used in new ways (ASHA 1). According to the Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education, there are various areas in which bilingualism can be considered beneficial, including that of communication. One of the subsets of communication which the encyclopaedia addresses is that of language sensitivity. It states that, “Being able to move between languages may lead to sensitivity in communication” as bilinguals are, “constantly monitoring which language to use in different situations” (7). The article goes on to explain that because of this constant monitoring of which tongue to use when, bilinguals may be more “attuned to the communicative needs of others,” (7). This leads to better communication amongst individuals, leading to less social conflict and misunderstandings due to language barriers.
Bilingualism also has many cognitive advantages, meaning bilingual brains benefit from being able to process more than one language. Firstly, knowing more than one language helps the individual to think more creatively and aids in cognitive development (Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education 8). The reason given by the encyclopaedia is the fact that a person is able to think in two or more languages, gives them the ability to have more than one name which they attribute to an object or an idea. As such, corresponding words may have different connotations and meanings and this extends the meaning and understanding of the terms by providing a variety of images and associations.
Research done in the past few years has proven that being bilingual can aid a person’s health situation as the years go by. A study referred to by Bhattacharjee in the New York Times, via his article, “Why Bilinguals are Smarter,” included 44 elderly bilinguals that spoke both Spanish and English. This study conducted by neuropsychologist, Tamar Gollan of the University of California in San Diego in 2004, discovered that those who had a high level of proficiency in both Spanish and English, which was tested through an examination of competence of both languages, had a higher resistance to dementia and other early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. As such, the Times (1) concluded that the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of the onset of the disease (Bhattacharjaree).
According to The Bilingualism Reader by Li Wei, 2000, there are many cultural advantages of being bilingual as it provides the speaker, “with the opportunity to experience two or more cultures,” (7). It continues to say that a monolingual person may visit neighbouring countries and certainly would be able to enjoy other cultures, but unlike bilinguals, they would not have the capacity to “penetrate” the different cultures, which requires learning the language of that particular culture.
In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, Morris 2003, reminds us of our proximity to Latin America, which justifies just how appropriate it is for us here to acquire the Spanish language and even French and Portuguese, since French Guiana and Brazil are also part of the South American continent. Learning these languages would allow us to understand our neighbours, as well as their history which is very similar to that of Trinidad and Tobago.
Keeping in mind the cultural advantages of bilingualism and the fact that it helps individuals to understand a culture better, one must also consider the economic advantages both personally and as a country. Someone with these language skills would possibly have academic opportunities available to them. For example, tertiary education is free in France as long as the foreigner is able to speak French, as it is in Cuba to study medicine, as long as the student is fluent in Spanish. These advantages benefit individuals not only because such education is free, but it also opens up more opportunities for them to obtain jobs abroad, and serves as a asset in their homeland if they choose to return. According to Wei, when “economic barriers fall” and “international relationships become closer” amongst countries, there would be more jobs available requiring workers to have more than just their native language at their disposal (Wei 23). This would thus increase productivity in a society, making way for even more economic benefits. With more qualified bilingual workers within the different sectors of the government, there would be a better understanding of trade agreements and dealings in general with other states.
Taking into consideration the economic linkages with Latin America along with many other advantages of having a bilingual society, there is a need to ensure that late bilingualism is achieved within Trinidad and Tobago. According to Morris, firstly, there should be campaigns that influence and guide students to learn other languages. Citizens in general should be sensitised about the benefits of being proficient in another tongue as this may encourage them to engage in language learning activity (Morris 2). Important to note, however, is that not only should schools be responsibile for encouraging language learning, but so should the business community. If business owners and entrepreneurs use foreign language proficiency as a criterion for obtaining a job, more individuals would be obligated to learn another language at least at the basic level. Business owners can also make facilitate this learning at their institutions, by providing language courses for their employees (Morris 2).
In conclusion, it can be said that there are different types of bilingualism, including early and late, each with their own subsets. Even though the best time to acquire a new language is through early bilingualism, this is not the only way to reap the benefits of being bilingual. This is where late bilingualism comes in, which helps the individual to learn a language, as the name suggests, later on in life via academic institutions and other mechanisms. The advantages of being bilingual include cognitive advantages, where one’s brain is open to creative thinking and better understanding of words and terms; health advantages including the delay of the onset of dementia; cultural advantages, where one is able to experience and truly understand other cultures and traditions by understanding their native tongues; and very importantly, the economic advantages where both the individual and the country in which they reside can benefit, increasing not only salaries but productivity as a whole.