The Benefits of Bilingualism at Work

Christina E Rodriguez, Special to CareerBuilder

Bilingual in the workplace

At home, you spoke Spanish, neglecting what the outside world was teaching you about English grammar and sentence structure. Your parents demanded it in your home; you stuck with it. As an adult, you can speak both fluently, bilingual and bicultural in a world that's still for the most part, monolingual. But there are plenty of benefits when it comes to working in a world that's slowly transitioning into a place where language plays a big part in marketing, business and networking.

Karen Beeman, who has worked within the bilingual education world for more than 20 years, has seen benefits of bilingualism in students and adults. Now, as an education specialist at the Illinois Resource Center, she gives workshops on the importance of bilingual and dual language education and has also spent the last four years working on a book for bilingual teachers titled "Teaching Spanish Literacy in the U.S.," which is needed for the growing demographic of bilingual Latinos in the United States.  

According to the Population Reference Bureau's "Population Bulletin Update 2010: Latinos in the United States", the U.S. population grew 36 percent between1980 and 2009 with the Latino population tripling from 14.6 million to 48.4 million, making Latinos a big source for the workforce, management positions and, above all, clientele.

Being bilingual gives you an advantage on outreach, says Beeman. "You get to reach that many more people depending on your job," she says. What's more, is that by understanding not only language, but culture results in greater benefit. Retailers, marketers and customer service representatives are some of the most influential when it comes to being bilingual in the workforce. Being able to understand on a bilingual and bicultural level allows for an even deeper sense of business-client relations.

It doesn't stop there. Being an owner, manager or anyone in an administrative seat also displays a need for bilingualism. As someone who travels for her work, Beeman says that while in Washington State she was able to learn about the influx of Latino laborers, making it pertinent for owners of the agricultural markets to learn Spanish.  

"The agriculture business has boomed because of the immigrant workers that they have and many of the owners of the apple orchards and wineries are working hard to learn Spanish so they can communicate to their employees," she explains. Being able to relate to employees from an employer's standpoint allows for better retention and a happier workplace of communication and understanding.

Being bilingual has proven beneficial on multiple levels of understanding. In students, those who are bilingual prove to have higher test scores because of an advanced cognitive understanding. This is also exemplified in adults.   


"People who are bilingual have more metacognition, which means that they're a lot more flexible in their thinking," explains Beeman. "In the workplace it helps with your problem solving."

In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a professor at York University in Toronto explains the brain in a bilingual mind. The brain, which acts as an executive control system, is supposed to focus you on one thing while dismissing distractions, she says, specifically in this case, with language. This is what allows people in general to be thinking of two things at once, switching between the two. As a bilingual person who consistently uses two languages instead of one, the brain becomes sharper in distinguishing what exactly is relevant at the moment a particular language is being used, manifesting a more advanced cognitive system. This also increases one's ability to multi-task. In a recent study, Dr. Bialystok found that bilingualism prevents the onset of Alzheimer's disease symptoms by five or six years.

As not only a bilingual person, but a bicultural person, one tends to be able to relate to the person they are talking to in a different way. Beeman's brother, who is also bilingual and bicultural, works in the food industry. Working with someone in Miami who is also bicultural and bilingual was not a problem. The understanding between the two workers was smooth and communicative.

Beeman's father, who works in the paper industry, works as a middle man for American companies who wish to do work in Mexico and Guatemala and vice versa. 

"With the global economy, you can have someone in Chicago communicate with a person in Chile and understand the protocol, which may be different for Latinos," explains Beeman. "If you take that [bicultural] communication style and use it in the workplace, workers can be more cooperative with each other and use communication more efficiently."

As a bilingual person in the workplace, advantage over your peers and co-workers can develop into career opportunities. Elisa Leon is the only one that speaks Spanish at her job. A Peruvian native, Leon was able to travel to Puerto Rico and will be traveling to Mexico because of her bilingualism.

"It really opens the doors on all kinds of levels," says Beeman. "It stretches you and allows you to do things that you wouldn't normally be able to do."

Christina Rodriguez researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for Empleos.

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