We live in a world where speaking more than one language is seen as a positive thing. Multilingualism is encouraged, and as our world becomes more globalized, multilingualism is seen as a normal part of a child’s upbringing.
There are several reasons why learning a second language is a good idea: it increases your chances of finding a better job, you will be able to communicate with people from other cultures and it might broaden your understanding of concepts foreign to you. The latter is what I really want to focus on when it comes to multilingualism. I believe that second language acquisition doesn’t only bring practical advantages with it – like asking for the restroom in a foreign country. The ability to fluently speak more than one language can grant you access to a different way of understanding and seeing the world. Language is powerful because it shapes our mind and the way we perceive our surroundings. We’ve seen evidence of this in the media; news outlets constantly veer their viewers in one direction or the other through the way in which they describe the events and the people involved.
The way we speak, and the way that we are being spoken to on a daily basis greatly influences our identity. Think of a Roman language and then compare that to a Germanic language. I will focus on Spanish, which has many ways to say “I love you”. There are also different gradations to this expression. There is one that you can say often to friends or family, and throwing it around is no big deal as you can also use this for objects (te quiero). But, then there is one that is very special and should be reserved for a romantic love (te amo). Lastly, there is te adoro, which translates to “I adore you”, and this is also a very strong way to express your love to someone. Spanish has different words for “love” but English, for example, does not. If you think about it, this can sometimes result in not being able to profess your love to a friend, or to a family member just because of a lack of vocabulary. But, it could also mean that if your mother tongue is not a Romance language, then you might be less eager to express your emotions to those close to you. I know that this is a very superficial statement to make because there are obviously other factors that go into forming someone’s identity. But, we shouldn’t ignore the power that language has on the mindset of a group of people. In short, words exist in languages that don’t exist in others. More importantly, if the words don’t exist in your language, then the concept also cannot exist in your brain, because if it does not have a name, then it does not exist. Bilingualism (or even multilingualism) is one of the ways through which we can grasp these unknown concepts. This idea is linked to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that states that language determines our experience of the world.
So, how does speaking more than one language affect a person’s identity exactly? It could make someone more open-minded to the different ways that the world can be seen by others. More importantly, multilingualism can broaden your understanding of concepts, as this gives you an insight into the ideologies of other cultures. Speaking more than one language is therefore important because it creates empathy and mutual understanding. A good example of this is “Latinx”, a gender-neutral term some people prefer to use over the gendered terms “Latino” or “Latina”. The use of “Latinx” is more inclusive, while the gendered terms for people from Latin America divides people and puts them into gender binary structures. Why? Because traditionally, when there is a group of males and one female, the masculine word “latinos” is used for all of them, despite its masculine form. The female word “latina” is only used when a group only consists of women. And, as soon as a man joins this group the word to describe them would automatically switch to “latinos”. It has only been recently that this, to many sexist, way of categorizing people from Latin America has been challenged by the introduction of the new term “Latinx”. This new term thus allows people to stop thinking in binaries and to start thinking in a way that puts more people at a level of equality. This new term can therefore also bring empathy for the LGBQT community and open others’ minds to ideas like gender fluidity.
Multilingualism can really open your mind to foreign ideas or they can give you the words to abstract ideas that you had in your mind but were not able to put into words yet. However, if you don’t speak more than one language, then there is no need to worry because the benefits of being monolingual aren’t bad either. First of all, you might have a larger sense of nationalistic pride and therefore stand firmer in your identity. Also, your vocabulary might be larger because you only have to think of one language. Lastly, you can always come up with ways to tweak words of your language to adapt it to your way of thinking (Latinx being an example of this). Whether someone is monolingual or multilingual, verbalizing the essence of what we really mean in our brains will always be a hard task to undertake, and multilingualism is just a tool to ease this pursuit.