Besides being able to ask where the bathroom is in more places. Last November I mentioned a study showing that knowing two languages gives you "an advantage in mastering other complex thought processes, including "learning in general, complex thinking and creativity, mental flexibility, interpersonal and communication skills, and even a possible delay in the onset of age-related mental diminishment later in life."
A new study "has shown that bilinguals use the left inferior frontal lobe, the Broca's area, to respond to stimuli where executive functions are performed (such as ordering forms by colour or shape), whereas monolinguals use the right part to respond to the same stimuli."
This does't add to the first hypothesis, but it provides a physical substrate for the observed differences in cognition. In general, it supports the muscle metaphor, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.
In particular, it supports routine teaching of languages in schools, as early as possible. If it is true that speaking two languages improves "learning in general, complex thinking and creativity, mental flexibility, interpersonal and communication skills, and even a possible delay in the onset of age-related mental diminishment later in life," then it is almost child abuse not to teach kids a second language. As a public policy issue, we certainly should be teaching foreign languages in elementary school. Why would we not want smarter kids?
I can see why it would be politically difficult. Not only would it cost money to hire teachers, but it would have to contend with the xenophobia of the nativists.
It may be self-serving, because I worked in several different foreign countries for about 6 or 7 years, but it seems to me that I see a difference between people who have lived in a foreign country and those who have not. It seems to me they understand better that there is more than one right way to be. As Kipling wrote, "There are 9 and 60 ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right."
[back patting] I've worked for from several months to a couple of years in Mexico, Cameroon, Egypt, Dubai, India, and the People's Republic of Congo (the small one, not the one that used to be Zaire). I learned passable Spanish in Mexico, French in West Africa, Arabic in the Middle East, and then took two semesters of Japanese at the local community college, when #1 son took it there to satisfy a high-school language requirement. I had to drive him there and back, so I might as well sit in. [/back patting]
Anyway, back to the topic at hand, it seems to me that the strong advantages of learning second and third languages are good enough reason to require it in elementary schools. But it won't happen, because of money and nativism. The only way it could possibly happen would be for Obama (who has lived in a foreign country) to make it part of No Child Left Behind. Teach languages, or you don't get any federal money. Fat chance.