When people learn that I speak Hungarian as well as English, their expressions automatically transform into one of awe or appreciation, as though they never do something as “amazing” as speak another language fluently. Usually, an adult will talk about how they learned Spanish or French in high school or college only to forget it entirely and a student will say they are learning a language but have no idea what’s going on. I actually understand what these people mean.
When I was in preschool, I lived in Germany. I learned to speak fluently within a year, and soon it was my favorite language. I spoke the language whenever and wherever I could and substituted German words for words I had forgotten in Hungarian and English, much to my parents’ annoyance. Then we moved to Kansas. As one could imagine, no one speaks German in Kansas, so I didn’t practice and forgot the language entirely.
I, however, was a child at the time, with no idea that I would forget the language. I had learned German simply by listening to my German classmates and teachers, and therefore didn’t know the grammar structure or how to read and didn’t have notes or a book to refer to. These adults who have forgotten and students who aren’t learning have these resources, and they do know that if they don’t practice, they will forget everything.
So, after two years of German classes in high school, I practiced. There are many ways to do so, including listening to music or public radio stations in that language, corresponding with people who are native in your second language and signing up for free language learning sites like duolingo.com. I technically haven’t taken a German class since the 2014-2015 school year ended, but I was still able to jump into my German 123 class this quarter with no problems because I implemented these techniques.
All people need to do is practice speaking, reading and writing a language in order to reap the benefits of being bilingual.
Many studies have been released that show that bilingual people are better at solving certain types of problems than monolingual people and have lower risks for memory loss and dementia. According to the New York Times, “The collective evidence from a number of studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function.” This function is a system in the brain that is used for “planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions.” The newspaper also commented on how knowing another language, even if one is not entirely bilingual, can help the brain resist Alzheimer’s, although they did say that “the higher the bilingualism, the later the age of onset.” One doesn’t have to be so fluent they think and breathe the language, they just need to use and practice it regularly.
Some of the other benefits are not so scientific. For example, whenever I meet someone who also speaks Hungarian, we automatically become friends. Being the only bilingual in a building is very much like being the only girl in a weight-training class at a high school; when you meet someone else that is like you, you form a bond over being the “only ones.” Nearly all of my parents’ friends are people they met through the Hungarian American Association of Washington, and you don’t even have to speak the language to join that organization.
Monolinguals are always extremely impressed with my bilingualism and it often results in people thinking I am smarter than them, an experience that many bilinguals have shared on the Internet. One such article is called “The Benefits of Being Bilingual: People Think You’re a Genius,” and other articles and blog posts have similar titles. Additionally, the fact that I speak multiple languages is a great conversation starter that has actually helped me make some amazing long-term friends outside of the Hungarian community.
Some might be wondering at this point how these benefits could apply to them if they learn a second language much later in life. However, my parents didn’t fully learn English until they were adults and the only reason I am living in the U.S. right now with my parents in stable jobs is because they knew English well enough to move here and make better lives for themselves and for their family. It’s never too late.