How Being Bilingual Makes You Smarter

I’d like you to come along with me on a thought journey, as we explore how learning English as your second language, and becoming bilingual can help you become smarter, more self-assured, and advance your progress towards success.

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There are many articles written and extensive research has been done on how being bilingual can make you smarter, and how it’s good for your brain, but this article is not intended to corroborate or dispute that idea.

What I’d like to explore is whether you appear to be smarter to others because you are bilingual.

Something I like to do with all of my goals in life is to start with the end in mind. And learning English is no different…so what does the end look like for you on your English language journey? Once you’re proficient at English… do you see yourself as being smarter?

Certainly, all of these occupations require English proficiency, to varying degrees.

A checkout teller at the convenience store, taking a pizza order at the call center, a dietitian engaging with a client and preparing meal plans, a doctor discussing a medical journal, a businessman delivering a speech etc

What level of English proficiency do you need to be successful?

Please bear with me as I take you through a short story that illustrates how being bilingual changes the way people see and interact with you.

An excerpt taken from the book “George and I”, an incredible story of the bond between a man (me) and his dog (George)

As I drive down the dusty, rutted dirt track into Folweni (Umlazi, South Africa), I can see Zebulon’s tavern in the distance. Probably built 20 years ago out of hollow brick blocks and corrugated iron sheeting, the building reminds me a lot of the trading stores built by the Portuguese traders in Mozambique. Square in shape with a flat roof, it had a red steel 20-foot refrigerated container attached to the one side.

This was the cold room for the huge amount of beer Zebulon, the tavern owner, sold.

The building is divided in two by a 1.2m high brick wall, on top of which sits a steel palisade barrier, extending up to the ceiling, designed to keep the drunken customers away from the staff and stock.

My pool table and jukebox are amongst the drunken customers. The jukebox is so loud in the tavern it’s a wonder anyone can be heard over the music to place an order.

It’s 1998 and the township is a time bomb, quietly ticking away until it explodes. The tension is tangible and it’s not a pleasant place to work in. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in.

In the last three months, seven of the tavern owners where I have a pool table placed have been brutally murdered, the result of faction fighting and territorial disputes. I am sick and tired of the tension and have three pool tables left to uplift and move out of the area. We had had a great time in Folweni in previous years. The returns were good and George (a large staffie cross pitbull) had become something of a legend to the children that lived in that township.

As we approach the store, I can see children running as they recognise the bakkie (pickup truck). Above the diesel engine, the high pitched voices can be faintly heard shouting “George ufikile” (George has arrived). By the time we approach the store we have a long tail of children following us, laughing and hitting the side of the bakkie, shouting “George ufikile” (George has arrived). There are about 80 children amassed at the store entrance waiting for George. As we pull up and I get out the crowd grows suddenly quiet…and I greet the kids and ask “Who wants to see the dog that speaks three languages “Tina” (we do) they shout. I call to George in Zulu “puma George” (get out George) and George leaps out of the bakkie to the ground, to oohs and ahhs from the crowd. He is not very interested in the kids, stiffing around, and cocking his leg on the tyre.

“Speak in English” the children shout, “Speak in Afrikaans”, “Speak in Zulu”

You see, I had told the children on previous visits that George is the only dog in the world that can speak in three languages. Then I would say “Sit” in Zulu and George would sit. I would say “Lie down” in Afrikaans and George would lie down. And so on. George knew dozens of commends in the three languages.

The kids thought this was the most amazing thing they had ever seen. The children loved throwing a stick for George and they all screamed at once for George to fetch in three languages. They sounded like a swarm of bees as they shouted to him. George would fetch regardless and never tired of their game. As he stood in front of them with the stick in his mouth they’d be bunched up tightly together, the kids at the back pushing forward to try and touch George while the kids at the front pushed back away from him, still a little scared of him. When a child plucked up the courage to pick up the stick George had dropped, and threw it for him the game would start all over again, and he would rush off to fetch, barking madly.

“Boss, ngqela ishumi” they shout (please a 1 rand coin) “Dlala ijukebox” (we want to play a song on the jukebox) The R1 would go into the coin slot, and as the pulsing music started, the kids would start moving, a mass of animated, gyrating happy dancers, each trying to outdo the other with the craziest moves, while George rushed around them barking, enjoying the fun.

George was a great dancer and they chased him round, screaming and shouting, such a wonderful thing to see. In amongst the filth and poverty, George was a bilingual entertainer and the kids loved him.

The kids thought George was smart because he could speak three languages. So in essence, he projected his intelligence onto his audience by his knowledge of languages and in return received adulation, praise and respect because of what he knew.

I use this story to illustrate to you how being bilingual can impact the way people see you and treat you.

Is this the same for humans? Let’s think about this for a moment.

The last time you got into an Uber in Paris, or asked for directions in Rome, did you greet the driver with a “Hello”, a “Bonjour” or a “Ciao”?

Even the slightest effort in trying to learn someone else’s language changes the way the person interacts with you.

And if you know a handful of phrases, and can converse even in the most basic terms, it endears you to the person you’re interacting with.

I’d like to ask you this question: if being bilingual makes you smarter, HOW smart do you need to be to achieve YOUR definition of success? And what is your definition of success?

What are the different levels of English, and at what point are you considered bilingual?

The dictionary definition of “bilingual” is “using or able to use two languages with equal fluency.”

In layman’s terms this means:

  • You should be able to go through your day (ordering a pizza, pub crawling, making love, reading a newspaper, watching a movie etc) without any hesitation or difficulty, and be able to accurately describe your experience the following day to a native English speaker (the pub crawl may be a challenge though!)
  • Having an accent or not is of no consequence, as long as it doesn’t confuse or amuse your audience.
  • In addition, watching a TV show with friends, discussing the recipes and ingredients afterwards, joking and winning a game of Scrabble would all indicate your proficiency with English.
  • In a work setting, having a discussion and briefing a colleague about project detail, preparing and delivering a fifteen minute speech to a group of native English coworkers and answering any questions afterwards would indicate you are fluent in English.

We love watching people progress with their proficiency of the English language, and have excellent teachers, linguists and trainers to help you progress and fast as you want to.
Many of our students use our chat https://t.me/EnglishForwardCommunityas a daily practice to improve their communication skills in a non threatening, encouraging environment.

These are the steps I’d recommend to you to accelerate your proficiency:

  1. Decide on what level of English you need to achieve success
  2. Work out a plan of action to get you to your goal or what your think success is for you.
  3. Practice chatting to other learners daily, and make communicating in English a habit in your life.

Written by Mitch Rankin

Mitch is Co-Founder and CEO at English Forward. He has close to 20+ years of experience in business, commerce and marketing. He is an experienced Director with a demonstrated history of working in the real estate industry. Mitch is an educator and philanthropist, an investor and partner in high profile property projects.

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