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The psychological benefits of multilingualism

Updated Wednesday, 13 March 2019
Read as Séverine Hubscher-Davidson explains how being multilingual can improve your patience and performance, whilst helping you to regulate your emotions.

Sévérine Hubscher-Davidson - banner (Polyglots)

Beyond the well-known social and professional benefits of being able to use several languages, being a polyglot also has some rather useful psychological benefits. Indeed, the act of learning languages helps the development of competencies such as tolerating ambiguity and managing emotional skills.

Multilingualism research indicates that a high level of multilingualism and multiculturalism makes people more tolerant of ambiguity (Dewaele and Wei 2013). Language learning is fraught with ambiguity, particularly in situations where real communication needs to take place, and language learners who are not able to tolerate this kind of ambiguity can find it very challenging to cope, sometimes developing negative feelings towards the language or learning experience as a result. On the other hand, positively engaging with languages can help to develop an individual’s ambiguity tolerance. In their research on multilinguals, Dewaele and Wei (2013) found that the more languages participants knew, the higher they scored on a personality scale measuring ambiguity tolerance. Having lived abroad and attaining good levels of proficiency in various languages also helped to improve participants’ scores. 

Developing one’s tolerance to ambiguity is not only useful when learning languages, however, as it has also been shown to improve performance in cross-cultural endeavours and settings, such as working environments, and to contribute to successful leadership (Herman et al. 2010; Tang, Yin, and Nelson 2010; Lee, Gettman, and Swanson 2013). Due to their multilingual skills and language-learning experiences, polyglots are thus more likely to be in control and at ease when faced with the wide range of issues that life will throw at them. They are also likely to perform well in cross-cultural settings as they value diversity and are able to understand that there is more than one way to interpret meaning.

People who are able to use several languages move between different emotional realities. People who are able to use several languages move between different emotional realities. It may therefore not be surprising that language learning can help individuals to manage and self-regulate their emotions, and to become more emotionally resilient in the face of difficulties. Indeed, multilingualism has been linked to foreign language enjoyment, and this heightened enjoyment has been shown to decrease anxiety and other negative emotions (MacIntyre and Dewaele 2014). Emotional competencies, such as empathy or emotional intelligence, also increase as a consequence of multilingual translating experiences and exposure to different language and cultural environments. You might be interested to know that language learners with higher levels of ambiguity tolerance and emotional intelligence are particularly well-suited to the job of a translator, as they are more likely to enjoy being linguistic researchers and problem solvers (Hubscher-Davidson 2018). Polyglots with these skills are also more likely to meet the translation-specific competencies promoted by the European Union Translation Expert Group, such as “readiness to adapt to new conditions in multilingual situations”.

So, if you are considering becoming part of the polyglot community, remember not to be afraid to take intelligent risks with a new language, and to welcome the inevitable linguistic uncertainty that is to come with open arms. After all, the psychological benefits of multilingualism speak for themselves.

About Séverine Hubscher-Davidson - Séverine is a Senior Lecturer in French and Translation, and the Head of Translation, School of Languages and Applied Linguistics, The Open University


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