By Mia Casey
Australia is a largely monolingual culture, regardless of government initiatives to increase the level of language learning in schools. As Professor Clyne, author of Australia’s Language Potential, has noted, Australia is “a nation rich in language resources, yet characterised (at government and community level) by monolingual thinking”. Unlike Europe, where 54% of the European population speak at least two languages, Australia’s census results show that only 3.9 million (or roughly 18% of our population) speak a language other than English at home.
This makes bilingual speakers a sought after minority for employers, as studies have shown that bilingual employees may present desired qualities including ‘analytical thinking, conceptualizing ability, working memory, and dexterity’. The result of these benefits is reflected in a study conducted by the University of Phoenix Research Institute, which indicated that the ‘demand for bilingual employees is expected to rise over the next ten years’.
What differences are there between bilingual and monolingual people?
When learning another language, you exercise different areas of your brain, sometimes shifting between the left and right hemispheres as you become more fluent. By utilising different areas of your brain through language use, growing evidence shows that bilingual people ‘can end up with improved attention, intelligence, and better verbal and spatial abilities’.
So what are some of the workplace benefits of being bilingual, in an often ‘proudly monolingual’ culture, such as Australia?
People with the ability to speak more than one language are shown to possess problem-solving abilities, allowing them to provide more creative responses to a brief or work issue. This is often strengthened for those working in a different culture from their own. It makes sense, as having a more diverse background provides a ‘wider variety of alternative of perspectives they [can] use to evaluate problems’, giving them a broader understanding on what pathways may be available when solving a problem.
Coupling this with findings that ‘using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases’ (some of which having the potential to limit the problem-solving ability of monolinguals), bilingual people are in a unique position to provide more diverse solutions to a given issue.
Better at multitasking
As people who speak multiple languages often have to mentally go back and forth between them, they are constantly exercising their brain. This means they are able to become more adept at juggling several mental processes simultaneously, thereby improving their ability to multitask. As Dr Ellen Bialystok has been quoted as saying: “Switching between languages is a stimulating activity - it is like carrying out brain exercises which builds up higher levels of what we call brain or cognitive reserve”.
Can help build stronger international links
Larger organisations, particularly those with stakes in overseas business, can benefit from bilingual staff members, as they can help strengthen these overseas connections (regardless of what language they speak). ‘Those who have grown up speaking two or more languages understand how complicated communication between two cultures can be’, and are therefore in a unique position to be able to provide cultural sensitivity to dealings with overseas connections.
In addition, being able to speak to international stakeholders in their own language can help build rapport, and bilingual staff are more easily able to flag any potential conflicts that may arise due to language or cultural differences.
While Australia currently remains largely monolingual, increased globalisation and our growing multiculturalism has the potential to increase Australia’s population of bilingual speakers, providing employers with a wider pool of possible staff members whose language skills could provide them with abilities their monolingual counterparts may be lacking.
So if you are an international student, or have grown up speaking a language other than English, then you may find yourself with a set of skills which you can utilise to set yourself apart during the job search process. Employers are increasingly beginning to see the benefits of having multicultural and bilingual staff, with a 2012 survey showing that ‘two-thirds of 572 international company executives say that their teams’ multicultural nature increases their organisation’s innovation’. So embrace your bilingualism – it may just help you land a job one day!
Are you an international student looking to work in Australia? Then come along to UTS:Careers’ Aussie Rules workshop. Find out more about Australia’s workplace culture, increase your communication skills, and have your questions answered, with special guests: The International Organisation for Migration and the Fair Work Ombudsman. Register today!
Featured image courtesy of Pexels.