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652: Multilingual

Back in episode 300, we discussed some of the details of the difficulty of measuring how many people around the world are actually bilingual or multilingual. However, does that even really matter? Research tells us that there are benefits — and depending on how you assign particular values — potential drawbacks to being able to speak more than one language.

Quoting from a review article published in 2017 in the Annals of Foreign Language, just a few of the benefits of learning to speak multiple languages include:

[…] enhance[ing] the ability to ignore irrelevant information, to switch from one task to another, and to resolve conflict across different alternatives.

[…] research on bilingualism has already documented a delay of 4 to 5 years in the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms for bilinguals relative to age and education matched monolinguals. The observed delay was independent of education, literacy, and other socioeconomic factors.

Overwhelmingly, research seems to be pointing to a few specific facts: the human brain may have developed to be multilingual, and speaking multiple languages has an impact on how we see and interact with ourselves and the world around us.

But – there may be times that those changes come in surprising ways. Speaking more than one language might even change the core of the moral decisions we make. Specifically, a few different studies have found that when you present someone with a moral quandary, the people who approach the question in a non-native second language make significantly more utilitarian decisions — and those who speak that second language as well as they do their native language do, too. And –quoting directly from a Scientific American article:

…when using a foreign language, muted emotional responses—less sympathy for those with noble intentions, less outrage for those with nefarious motives—diminished the impact of intentions.

In other words, speaking multiple languages, no surprise, has multiple effects on how we think, behave, interact with the world and more. So…