Does Speaking More Than One Language Encourage Empathy?

Although linguists readily agree there are benefits to be gained by learning another language, not everyone agrees just what the benefits are. When a benefit is perceived rather than being measurable, there are bound to be those who tend to underplay the importance of that benefit. While there is little doubt being bilingual is beneficial when traveling or seeking a new job, should language learners expect other benefits of speaking more than one language?

In a recent study at the University of Chicago, researchers found that when very young children learned a second language they also became significantly better able to empathize with others.

“Children in multilingual environments have extensive social practice in monitoring who speaks what to whom, and observing the social patterns and allegiances that are formed based on language usage,” explained Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and an expert on language and social development.  “These early socio-linguistic experiences could hone children’s skills at taking other people’s perspectives and provide them tools for effective communication.”

Since the workings of a human brain are complicated, there is not, at this point, a true understanding of why that occurs, but the simple fact it does is interesting. The researchers suggest older individuals don’t enjoy that improved ability to empathize, but is that necessarily true?

There is no question young children learn languages more readily than adults. Countless studies suggest very young children adapt to virtually all learning opportunities faster and more easily than adults, but does that mean older second language learners don’t share an enhanced ability to empathize with others? Some individuals would argue how and why older people learn a new language may impact how well they empathize with others.

When learning a new language, developing an understanding of the culture associated with that new language is almost automatic. If that is, indeed, true, it stands to reason the language learner would also become better able to empathize with native speakers of the language. Because older learners do learn differently than very young learners, it is totally understandable tests used to explore the results of learning a second language at three years of age would not be appropriate to measure changes in an adult.

Learning at any age tends to be a stimulating experience for the learner. No matter what the reason for learning a second language, the experience can, and often does, dramatically change the way learner perceives the world around them. While adults may not enjoy the same enhanced level of empathy a young person achieves, learning always tends to keep a person sharper and more aware of their world.