Ah, the Eurobarometer, bless it, as ever working hard to figure out just how little people really care about the EU. For once it has spat out some results which are vaguely worth considering.

What with all the exchange programs and grants that the EU has put in place to get students and professionals to study and work abroad for a year, it is only to be expected that the number of bi- and multi-lingual Europeans is increasing. So when the Eurobarometer tells us that their number has actually decreased in comparison to the year 2006, surely we should all throw our arms up in indignation and demand our Euro-tax money back. The latest data on Language Diversity tells us that just above half of all European citizens (54%) (-2% since 2006) are able to have a conversation in at least one other language, and that one quarter (-3% since 2006) speaks at least two additional languages.

The long-term EU objective is that each citizen should acquire practical knowledge of at least two foreign languages, but for the time being, in only eight member states does this apply to a majority of the population – Luxemburg (84%), the Netherlands (77%), Slovenia (67%), Malta (59%), Denmark (58%), Latvia (54%), Lithuania (52%) and Estonia (52%). Note the important presence of Baltic countries in there (where a large segment of the population speaks Russian or other Slavic languages as well as the local tongue) and the dominance of Luxembourg (which has three official languages already, so I can only image two of them are counted as ‘foreign’ for the purposes of this survey).

It seems to me that multilingualism is more a result of a complex political history and possibly good schooling/a subtitling policy for English TV shows rather than anything EU politics has been able to achieve. Which does not mean that they should stop trying. If 77% of Europeans think that the promotion of language skills should be politically prioritised then I’m all for it too, even if French has fallen out of favour (-13%), whilst the perceived utility of Chinese has risen (+12%). Thankfully, overall a whopping 98% believe that learning a language is useful for a child’s future, and surely 98% of Europeans can’t be wrong.

Why bilingual is better

I recently read an article talking about how bilingualism tends to push back the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I looked into it a bit more and it turns out to be quite old news. For the last decade, different research has been showing that those who speak more than one language on a daily basis have increased cognitive function in old age. Specific experiments have looked into the effects of bilingualism on executive control tasks in older people, and the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Multilingual speakers fare better in every case, not to mention that they have also been shown to be better at multitasking at any age.

It’s interesting to see how different news sources report this type of research. You can see for yourself the contrast between the sober article in The Guardian from 2011, going through the experimental results and quoting the researcher, and the overblown claims of NPR from a few months ago, stating inaccurate things like “speaking more than one language could prevent Alzheimer’s” or “save you from Alzheimer’s disease”. It can’t, if it’s in your genes it’s in your genes, but the added brain function of bilinguals can better fight the damage and delay the symptoms. The New York Times opted for this engaging interview with the research professor in Toronto responsible for the latest positive findings.

Of course, all this only works if in old age you are actively speaking more than one language on a more or less daily basis, not if you learned French in school and use it when you go on holiday to Nice once a year. The best thing then is to learn two languages from the start. It was once commonly thought that bilingual babies would somehow get more confused, and the idea of teaching them two languages was frowned upon. Now we realise that monolingualism is the unusual state of affairs in terms of our history. In his latest book, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond talks about how most tribes-people learn to speak at least 3-4 languages through necessary interaction with neighbouring people, be it play, trade or marriage.

Coincidentally, Diamond also reviewed some of the academic articles mentioned above for Science and then spoke to the BBC about it all a few years ago. So what advantages do bilingual babies, kids and grown-up kids have? Here are some of the reasons why bilingual is better:

  • more flexibility when dealing with changes of rules  
  • better at focusing in confusing situations 
  • better at processing sounds in noisy environments and tuning in to important information
  • augmented attention, inhibition and encoding of sound
  • better at prioritising tasks and multitasking
  • better at editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important detail
  • better at complex spatial reasoning tasks
  • better at learning phonological patterns in a new language
  • and last but not least, according to the Canadians, bilinguals bring in more income