[OPINION] The benefits of knowing many languages

Most Filipinos speak 3 languages: their mother tongue, Tagalog, and English. It is not uncommon for a Filipino to know even more than 3 languages. For example, many Waray people can speak Waray, Cebuano, Tagalog, and English. Kankanaeys know Kankanaey, English, Tagalog, Ilokano, and often another Cordilleran language. A Tausug in Zamboanga City could understand Bahasa Sug, Chavacano, Tagalog, Cebuano, and English.   

This language versatility shows the genius of Filipinos, and it is something to be proud of. That’s one of the reasons why we should be celebrating August as Buwan ng mga Wika (Month of Philippine Languages) instead of just Buwan ng Wika. 

Knowing multiple languages has numerous benefits. The scholar Francois Grin divides the benefits of multilingualism into 4 main categories: private market value, private non-market value, social market value, social non-market value. These terms are a bit clunky, but to put it more simply: “private” refers to those qualities of multilingualism that benefit the individual; “social” benefits are those for society as a whole. 

In this article, we shall focus on the private (that is, personal) benefits of multilingualism. What are the rewards you, as an individual, may obtain from being able to speak more languages?

If you know many languages, you are likely to have access to a wider choice of jobs. If a company in Iloilo were comparing two similar candidates for a job, the person who spoke more languages (for example, Hiligaynon, English, Tagalog) would probably get picked over someone who only knew one or two languages, because he would be able to interact with a wider range of clients in their preferred language. 

With a wider choice of jobs, you are likely to find a job that suits your interests best and satisfies you financially. A Swiss study by Grin & Sfreddo (1997) found a correlation between the number of languages people know and their income. They found that every additional language known results in an average increase of 4-20% in net earnings. If you speak more languages, it indicates to employers that you are adaptable, smart, eager to learn, and culturally aware, which is why multilingual people tend to get better jobs. 

Multilingual people also have access to lower prices. You can bargain more effectively if you speak the seller’s language, thanks to establishing immediate rapport. By attempting to speak in the other person’s language, you are showing savvy and respect, which encourages the seller to give you a better deal.  

Multilingualism offers easier access to information. The more languages you know, the more likely you are able to comprehend different information sources, whether that be a local radio drama, a tsunami warning, a street fight, a question from a stranger, a scientific journal, or the two attractive people gossiping about you at a café. You have greater access to cultural output too, which fosters knowledge, tolerance, and appreciation of different cultures. 

Another plus is that multilingual people are often better at learning languages (Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2009; Petitto et al., 2012; Krizman et al., 2012). The more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another one. That’s because you are familiar with a wider variety of sounds and grammatical structures that you will need to use. You also have mastered more learning strategies, such as memorizing, pattern recognition, knowing what questions to ask, looking out for exceptions, fixing mistakes, and trying different media (for example, books, computer-based lessons, dictionaries, chat groups, etc). This is probably why Filipinos are adept at learning foreign languages, because they are used to several languages from a young age.  

Scientists have discovered that knowing more languages comes with a slew of cognitive benefits: improved problem solving skills (Bialystok & Martin, 2004; Costa et al. 2008); memory generalization (Brito & Barr); multi-tasking (Prior & Gollan, 2011); mental flexibility and plasticity (Kovacs & Mehler, 2009; Zou et al., 2012); creative thinking (Maddux et al., 2010), and even resisting brain disease like dementia (Kave et al., 2008; Luk et al., 2011)!  

Long-term policies, like the exclusion of native languages in most levels of education, threaten our multilingualism. Tagalog people don’t have much opportunity to learn other Philippine languages, while some non-Tagalogs are abandoning their mother tongues for the perceived superiority of Tagalog and English. Most high schools don’t offer any other language subjects, whether native or foreign, besides English and Filipino.  

Considering the benefits of multilingualism, let us overcome our fixation on having one language and embrace the potential of having many. To take advantage of this potential, we must respect our mother tongues, treat them as equals, and involve them in national development plans. A good place to start is by celebrating Buwan ng mga Wika (Month of Philippine Languages), to honor national, regional, and local languages side-by-side. – Rappler.com   

Multilingual Philippines is an informal network of researchers and advocates of flexible and inclusive policies related to languages, education, and diversity. This article consolidates inputs from Ched E. Arzadon, professor at the College of Education, University of the Philippines-Diliman; Elizabeth A. Calinawagan, PhD, former dean of the College of Arts and Communication and professor of Filipino and linguistics at UP Baguio; Tony Igcalinos, president of Talaytayan 170+ Multilingual Education; Napoleon B. Imperial, former deputy executive director IV at the Commission on Higher Education; Firth McEachern, “Honorary Ilokano and Son of La Union” by Provincial Ordinance 033-12; and Voltaire Q. Oyzon, former director, Panrehiyong Sentro sa Wika, Leyte Normal University. Contact multilingual.philippines@gmail.com.