Benefits of Bilingualism

By Michelle Feneberg 2019-06-27 18:18:35

Now that you're in Shanghai, learning a little Mandarin can go a long way in making daily life easier.


Michelle Feneberg takes a look at the many ways you and your children will benefit from learning a second language.

As expats, the ability to communicate with local people is one of the most rewarding experiences of the overseas adventure. Speaking to people about their lives, reading their newspapers, listening to their radio shows, watching their television programs and hearing their jokes gives insight into the local culture. Intricate nuances in language are often lost in translation – true understanding only comes from communicating in the local language.

Learning Mandarin is no easy task, however. It‘s one of the most difficult languages in the world, requiring 2200 hours to obtain general proficiency in speaking and reading as opposed to 600 hours for Spanish or French. So before you’ve even started, you might be inclined to give up, but there are a number of compelling reasons for you and your children to tackle a new language.

Smoothing daily life

The obvious reasons are to simplify your life in your new country. Being able to manage the basics in day-to-day life without a frustrating language barrier will contribute greatly to your wellbeing. Giving directions to a taxi driver, shopping at a market and interacting with your Ayi are opportunities to take charge of your life instead of feeling powerless. Basic vocabulary to complete these tasks is easily learned in two to three months of intensive Mandarin coursework.

From then on, you can decide whether to build on the language to gain more rewarding and insightful interactions with the local community. Learning Mandarin is a commitment and requires discipline, but a simple investment of 30 minutes a day, accompanied by one to two hours of lessons a week will bring great rewards.

Improves academic performance

Second language learning has been shown to have a large measurable impact on children’s performance at school and future job prospects. Gone are the days where superstitious aunts caution against teaching your child a second language for fear it will interfere with the first. Today countless studies stress the benefits of second language learning:

Foreign language students regularly outperform their peers on standardized tests (e.g. SAT) in math and verbal scores.

Learning a foreign language helps enhance first language structure and vocabulary because students gain a better understanding of the building blocks of language.

Studies show bilinguals have better listening skills and sharper memories than their monolingual peers.

  • They are also more creative and better at problem solving.
  • They show higher levels of cognitive learning and adaptability.
  • They learn additional languages faster.

Studies not only indicate that children benefit more during their school lives from learning a second language, but also later in life. Foreign language students were shown to have improved chances of college acceptance as well as less dropout rates than their peers. Furthermore, a study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that employees who speak German or Chinese earn 4% more than their colleagues over a lifetime. This was attributed to them being more productive because they had better cognitive skills and communicative abilities.

Companies are increasingly implementing globalization strategies, only to discover they are hampered by language barriers. The demand for linguists is soaring, and bilingual applicants will continue to be at a great advantage in the coming years.

Being in China offers the perfect immersion experience for learning a language that is growing in popularity in the world. Parents and children alike have an outstanding opportunity to soak up the language by hearing words and seeing written characters in their regular surroundings. Daily exposure to the language provides constant revision, which many Mandarin students around the world can only dream of. With a little investment in lessons and consistent effort, living in Shanghai is almost like getting a free education in a useful language skill that can give our families the competitive edge at school and in the workplace.

Delays dementia

If the previous arguments don’t convince you, then perhaps the next will. A 2013 article published in the American Journal of Neurology shows dementia sets in on bilingual adults 4.5 years later than monolinguals. This interesting study factored in education level and gender amongst others, but found that bilingualism alone plays an important role in delaying the onset of dementia.

Improves memory & decision making

The brain is a muscle which needs to be exercised. Foreign language learning provides that exercise because it requires memorization of grammatical rules and new words. This exercise improves overall memory, making bilinguals better at remembering shopping lists, names and directions. A study from the University of Chicago showed that bilinguals made more rational decisions because their brains had filtered out the nuances and biases in language that subconsciously influence our judgment.

Tips for Studying Mandarin

  • Speak, speak, speak! Speak to everyone you can: Neighbors, taxi drivers, street vendors and vegetable sellers. Make some Chinese friends.
  • Watch movies with subtitles. English with Mandarin subtitles provides a review of characters; and Mandarin with English subtitles will tune your ear to the language.
  • Listen to Chinese music. There are many pleasant tunes with lyrics that will reinforce new vocabulary.
  • Review daily. As little as 20 minutes a day can make a big difference. The more time you invest, the quicker you’ll learn.
  • Read Mandarin children’s books. These can be found at markets, the school library or your children’s Mandarin classroom. When you know 300 characters, download a Mandarin Companion Reader – they are fantastic!
  • Buy flashcards and play games with your kids. Even a quick game at the breakfast table is loads of fun while learning together.
  • While out and about, decipher characters using the Pleco app on your phone. When you repeatedly see the written language, the charaacters will stick in your mind and give meaning to your environment.
  • If people don’t understand you at first, try again. People in Shanghai speak many regional dialects, which can pose an extra challenge while communicating.
  • Don’t give up!