Now, the researchers from Concordia University in Montreal have the solution for yet another long-standing riddle: Which came first, bilinguals or the benefits of bilingualism? Based on their findings, people who learn to speak two languages from birth enjoy a number of benefits, such as better problem-solving abilities, even before they can speak.
Where I live, in Barcelona, Spain, most people speak Spanish and Catalan. Although I’m not fully fluent in Catalan, when I moved to Barcelona as an adult I found it to be true that we Spanish and French native speakers can learn Catalan quickly, and vice versa, as our languages are similar to each other in many ways. After all, they are Romance languages.
Since I arrived, I’ve become aware of the advantages of speaking two languages fluently—as if only because I envy the bilingual writers I know. But why is that? How can living and working in different languages help them as storytellers and content marketers?
In Barcelona, it’s not rare to hear kindergarteners discussing animated cartoons in Catalan and then switching inadvertently into Spanish to quote another character. They may even sprinkle their speech with some words in English if SpongeBob did.
Some traditional linguists would tell them that the minority language will disappear soon in contact with one of the most widely spoken tongues in the world, as it’s happened so many times in the past. But actually, there’s no need to ruin their fun. These spoilsport linguists are not considering an important transformation in the way languages are perceived and taught. Native speakers are now interested in teaching secondary languages to future generations (60.2 percent of families with one parent born outside Catalonia use Catalan with their children). Therefore, bilingualism doesn’t have to be necessarily short-lived and transitional. Trilingual education, with English, is now in the political agenda.
In fact, if we look at the history of human society, monolingualism is more of an abnormality rather than the norm. It’s estimated that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual—and this group has a lot to teach the rest of the world about becoming better storytellers.
Bilingualism is proven to help people understand different perspectives, with children who are exposed to several languages better at seeing through others’ eyes. In an experiment published in Psychological Science, bilingual children were able to perceive a speaker’s intended meaning much better than monolingual children. As the research states, “For millennia, multilingual exposure has been the norm. Our study shows that such an environment may facilitate the development of perspective-taking tools that are critical for effective communication.” The study also notes that children who were merely exposed to a secondary language also outperformed monolingual kids.
How about that to boost your narrative skills? If you manage to picture what your target audience can see, you’ll have a much better chance at being understood. Even when you as an adult don’t commit to learning a new language, just being exposed to one changes your approach to different cultures and makes you a more flexible and complex thinker.
Here’s a drill that you can try if you’re not bilingual from birth but speak more than one language. Seek inspiration for your brand’s content by reading in your second language to avoid emotion, or speak in your native tongue to improve empathy. If you can speak a little Spanish, check out this bilingual poem by US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and judge the effect for yourself.
Apart from improving communication, bilingualism is an open door that allows us to tap into various cognitive functions that affect how we use language.
The study of how bilingualism affects cognition is helping to understand the nature of the brain’s executive functions. Here are a few positive effects it has:
This is why bilinguals contribute to a more solid brand strategy: They learn to cut out non-essentials when necessary and are prepared to ignore rules when the data is telling them that they need to do something differently. In the following example, the team at Woot, an Internet retailer, eschews the long-used copywriting tactic of listing product benefits and features and instead uses a simple, ironic tone to get attention. This is the same thinking that global content marketing teams must adopt with their content.
But we haven’t yet talked about the most important advantage of bilingual storytellers.
Maybe you enjoyed, as I did, the play “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” It was the longest-running comedy in London’s West End, and now it’s on stage again. All 37 plays in 97 minutes, performed by only three actors. Is it not the dream of every writer to be able to jump from under the skin of a great character to another in the blink of an eye? Bilinguals do just that. They think twice and speak once. Even better, they get to pick the self that suits them at any time they wish.
A study by scientists at Hong Kong Polytechnic University concludes that if you speak multiple languages, you might adopt different personality traits, (something that I can vouch for). Language does not determine thought, but the shift in context and circumstances associated with each language does the trick. For content marketing strategists, that means becoming more aware of different cultures and other points of view. They can, in short, stand in the middle of their audience just by switching between languages.
Next time you need to rethink your brand strategy, study how language works. You don’t always need hard science. Fifteen minutes of watching SpongeBob in another language is a great start.