Learning a second language is a journey that many of us will have started at some point in our lives. The path can be long, sporadic, sometimes frustrating and occasionally enlightening as you bump into those eureka moments you find along the way. The drive to learn can come from many sources; family, career, travel, college. We all start the journey from a different point, but with a common destination in mind – the ability to effectively communicate in a language other than our mother tongue.
What most of us won’t realize is that the process of becoming bilingual and ultimately becoming fluent in another language has benefits far beyond communication. So, whether you’ve just taken your first language lesson, you’re already knee deep in verb tenses or you’ve just reached near native fluency, here’s a breakdown of the other benefits of learning a foreign language and why the journey is worth it.
Language apps, software, books and audio guides - all can form a part of your language learning tool kit, but the true acid test of fluency is engaging in conversation with a native speaker. As a language learner, you know the first time you do this can be unnerving. Speaking in a different tongue can seem alien and certainly not within your normal comfort zone.
A key skill of the seasoned language student is understanding that being outside of your comfort zone and ‘having a go’, whilst making mistakes, is an essential part of learning a language, and far more valuable experience than not ‘having a go’ at all. For bilingual people, the skills, experience and self-confidence gained through learning a language stay with them for life, ready to be used again in a new adventure.
It’s well understood that different parts of our brain perform different functions. Analytical and logical functions are concentrated in the left-side, whereas the right-side deals with emotion and social functions. Foreign languages can be complex and to master a second language requires hard work from both hemispheres resulting in some interesting advantages for the bilingual brain.
The cognitive workout required to speak two or more languages fluently seems to have a positive impact on brain development and function. Bilingual people tend to have a higher density of neurons and synapses within their brains and studies have suggested that mentally stimulating activities such as learning to read and speak in another language can have a positive influence on the overall wellbeing of our minds resulting in a lower risk of conditions such as Alzheimer's and dementia.
Studying a foreign language also has a positive impact on your memory. Committing vocabulary and verb tenses to long term memory can be tough but, if you view the mind as a “muscle”, regular exercise improves your overall memory and cognitive function. Studies have shown that practicing new and challenging activities such as learning a foreign language is a good bet for building and maintaining cognitive skills - Train your brain – Harvard.Edu. The result is that bilingual people tend to be better at recalling facts such as lists, directions and names in addition to better problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
The benefits of all that extra grey matter go way beyond having a health brain. Speaking a second language can help you improve your ability to multi-task and analyze problems.
As fluency develops and you flip between two languages, you increasingly challenge your mind to understand and process instructions based upon separate systems of writing, speech and structure. Thinking in a foreign language and moving from one language to another trains you to process multiple and separate stimuli at the same time.
Research suggests that people who are adept at speaking foreign languages have superior concentration and improved efficiency in the part of the brain that deals with problem solving and are better able to multi-task compared to monolingual people.
In a competitive job market, it’s more important than ever to be able to stand out from the crowd and differentiate yourself from other candidates. Only around 20% of Americans speak a language other than their native tongue – less than half the equivalent figure for Europeans.
There is good evidence to suggest that being able to converse in more than one language can give your chances of employment a significant boost and add to your earning potential once in employment. Albert Saiz, the MIT economist, calculated that you can expect to earn on average an additional 2% per annum as a bilingual employee – and that is just the average. For individual languages the premium can be much higher – up to 3% for French and almost 4% for German. Economist Magazine
The benefits of being a multilingual employee go beyond your pay packet. For many who work in larger multinational companies, being able to communicate with native speakers of other languages can create opportunities for travel overseas. Seeing the world and different cultures is great but having your employer pay for it is even better!
There’s nothing quite like having the ability to talk to people in their native language whilst traveling overseas. Unlike your monolingual fellow travelers, you can immerse yourself in a new culture, find the best restaurants, avoid the tourist traps and get the inside track on where to go and what to see.
Being fluent in the local language can make travel so much more rewarding but don’t be mistaken in thinking that only perfect pronunciation will do. More often than not, you’ll find locals are receptive to your efforts to speak their language and will appreciate the commitment you’ve shown to access their culture. It instantly demonstrates respect and is a great way for you to practice your language skills.
Learning a second language is undoubtedly one of the greatest accomplishments anyone can achieve. The key word here is “anyone”. We all communicate in our native language and therefore we are all capable of communicating in another.
Depending upon the language, you will have spent anywhere between 600 hours (Spanish, French, Italian..) and 2,000 hours (Japanese, Mandarin, Arabic…) studying your chosen language to near native fluency. Along with a huge sense of personal achievement comes insight into a larger world which will stay with you forever.
Most of us learn foreign languages in a different way to how we learnt our native language. As small children we absorb what we see and hear without too much thought for grammar and syntax.
As an adult who is learning to speak another language you are forced to give consideration to structure, grammar, word order, tense and perhaps gender. This forces you to consider in more detail how language is formed and as a consequence apply more consideration to how you can be a more effective communicator in your native language.
Anyone who has completed a language immersion program or spent time studying a language abroad will testify that language and culture are deeply interconnected. To learn a foreign language is to learn the traditions, customs, history, culture and idiosyncrasies of the people that speak it.
As a monolingual person you are constrained to the identity of a single group of people. In increasingly interconnected, multicultural societies, being bilingual engenders a greater sense of tolerance, understanding and appreciation for cultures different to our own. As the American linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf said, "Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about."
For most people learning one language is enough, but if your goal is to become a genuine polyglot the good news is that typically learning a third, fourth, fifth language is easier than the second.
The cognitive skills, improved memory and understanding of syntax developed from learning a second language will supercharge your efforts to learn additional languages. You will find many languages, such as the Romance languages, have considerable similarities which you can use to your advantage. For example Spanish and Italian speakers are broadly able to understand each other as do Portuguese and Spanish speakers.
Self confidence, a boost to brain power, improved memory, better job prospects and a whole new perspective on the world - there are so many great reasons to learn a foreign language. So whatever language you're learning we wish you every success - the journey is most definitely worth it!