Did you know that our world has about 6,500 languages? Sadly, only 20 percent of Americans speak a language other than English, but I think there is a solution to this. Over the past couple years, I have begun to notice that in many schools in the U.S., including mine, students don’t start the process of learning a new language until middle school. It would be extremely beneficial if schools instead thought about putting more money into acquiring bilingual programs for grammar school students.
The easiest way for someone to become bilingual is to start at a very young age, because their brain absorbs the sounds and rules of a new language naturally just like their native tongue. The older you get, the harder it is to learn a language because you have to study grammar rules and work around your already developed first language.
Some people think that a child only has room for one language in their life, and that to learn a second one, they would find it confusing. This is not true and in fact some places, such as Switzerland, have students learn up to two additional languages and by the time they graduate high school many of them are even trilingual.
A new language is one of the most rewarding experiences for anyone, but even more so at a young age. “During the first three years of life, the foundations for thinking, language, visions, attitude, aptitude, and other characteristics are laid down. It would be a waste not to use a child’s natural ability to learn during his or her most vital years when learning a second language is as easy as learning the first,” says Ronald Kotulak, author of “Inside the Brain.”
Some of the most crucial benefits of being bilingual are that a child’s focus, memory, planning and multitasking skills are better than if they are monolingual. Children can also ignore distractions easier because the part of their brain called the “executive function” is stronger in bilinguals, and this of course would benefit their academic performance in the classroom.
A second language can also help when traveling, especially a common one such as Spanish or French. Vacations to foreign countries would be more enjoyable, and it would open people’s minds to the different cultures of the world. My mother and father are fluent in Italian and English, so I know what it is like to be around someone bilingual.
A few years ago, my family and I visited Italy, where most of our relatives live. It was an amazing experience, but I felt a little bit out of place not being fully proficient in the language. Now, I think about how different that trip would have been if I had been able to communicate better. Everyday activities like listening to local music, watching a movie, or just getting a cup of coffee would have been effortless if I had known Italian.
Bilingualism at a young age also leads to many advantages in the long run, such as getting into a good college and having more career options. A second or third language can boost your chances of getting into a more academically advanced institution. Foreign language SAT tests are a great way of standing out during the college admission process. It’s important to show them what you’re capable of, and it can give you a head start by allowing you to complete the basic language requirement before other students. As the world is becoming more globalized, knowing a foreign language in business is also valuable. For example, someone who speaks Spanish has the advantage of communicating with people from 21 different countries worldwide. When applying for a new job, companies will certainly take this into consideration. If schools would teach languages from kindergarten through high school, more students would have the chance to go on to college, and have successful careers.
Despite all the reasons you’ve very likely heard about the benefits of learning another language – good for your degree, good for your travels, good for your career – some people seem to think that being multilingual isn’t all that important anymore. We’re here to remind you that not only is it important, it may very well be necessary.
It’s true that there are more and more people learning and speaking English these days. In fact, English is, according to some measures, the most widely spoken language in the world, the de facto lingua franca. Approximately 1.5 billion people around the world speak English, whether as their native tongue or as a foreign language, and this number is still growing.
As Chinese universities (for example) offer more instruction to Chinese students in English, study abroad administrators and their students will start to de-emphasize language learning on programs. The same phenomenon is happening in all parts of the world. I think the natural trend will be to overlook the incredible benefits of language learning, and to more quickly embrace programs that require very little in terms of language. This is what we have to work against.Mark Lenhart, Executive Director of CET Academic Programs
But why limit yourself? What about the other 5.5 billion people who don’t speak any English at all? Even if you don’t plan on ever setting foot outside your own town again, what happens if the world comes to you?
With ever-increasing levels of international trade and business, tourism, immigration, and random cross-cultural experiences, chances are you will eventually find yourself face-to-face with someone who doesn’t speak English, at least not up to a level you understand. The reasons to learn a foreign language or two have never been stronger. You don’t need to be a polyglot, but read on for reasons why language learning is still important.
1. You Have to Learn a Foreign Language for School
Learning a new language can be a part of your preparation for college or graduate school. Being able to speak a foreign language -- especially an in demand language like Chinese, Arabic, or Spanish -- and having experience with a different culture looks good on any application.
Many undergraduate programs and even some postgraduate courses have foreign language courses as part of their major or graduation requirements. At least two top international MBA business schools require all incoming students to know a second language in addition to English.
“One reason some students study language is because they are required to,” says Mark Lenhart, Executive Director of CET Academic Programs, a study abroad organization based in Washington, DC that designs innovative language and culture immersion programs abroad. “We sometimes have students tell us they choose our programs because the language classes fulfill a requirement."
2. It's Necessary for Your Work (or Better Prospects)
There aren’t many situations where language skills are the reason that someone gets passed over for a promotion, or even just to keep the job. But in an increasingly competitive job market, why would you not give yourself every possible edge?
But it’s not just about padding your resume. With globalization in full swing, there’s a good chance you’ll be working with people whose first language isn’t English. Maybe it’s a development team in India, or a manufacturing plant in China, or an alternative energy supplier in Germany; being able to communicate in other languages makes you much more valuable to an employer.
David Goodman-Smith, managing partner at China Study Abroad, a full-service agency based in Beijing, says his company’s fastest-growing group of students are people looking to enhance their employment opportunities. “Having that competitive edge on your CV these days can be invaluable and Mandarin is without a doubt an eye-catcher. Companies are on the lookout for these kind of experiences more and more,” he explains.
3. Your Family
It might be strange at first to think that you have to learn a new language for family reasons, but many people hail from immigrant families, and once you get into the second and third generation, it’s very often the case where the local language is your first language rather than your family’s original tongue.
David says China Study Abroad has seen more and more ethnic Chinese people going to China to study Mandarin. “As China grows [globally], families are more eager to make sure their children are not only more connected to their roots in China, but also that they have a good grasp of the language.”
I’m serious about this. We should understand that our young people, if you have a foreign language, that is a powerful tool to get a job. You are so much more employable. You can be part of international business. So we should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age...Barack Obama, US President
4. Because You Want to Travel Overseas
Unless your travel plans involve only English-speaking countries, you’ll probably want to learn a new language to make things easier for yourself.
Even knowing some basic words can help break the ice when you’re in a foreign country. It’s not the same as being able to have an entire conversation, but most people appreciate the fact that you’re trying to speak their language, even if you have to switch back to English right away.
By the way, our writers have come up with a few great lists of basic French phrases, essential Japanese, and must know Italian phrases before you go overseas to study one of these languages. You can also go the extra mile with these pre-departure tips for learning a language abroad.
5. You Want to Learn about Other Cultures
Let’s face it, language and culture go hand in hand. If you want to learn about Kenyan culture, Indian culture, or Chinese culture, you should probably learn some Swahili, Hindi, or Mandarin, respectively. It’s possible to do so otherwise, but there’s only so much you can learn from a book or a video. To truly understand a culture, you have to know what the people are talking about.
Imagine trying to learn about American culture without understanding English. Imagine trying to understand the humor of Dave Chappelle, or the lyrics of Bob Dylan, or the works of Shakespeare without actually knowing what the words mean. Cultural subtleties and pop culture references might be totally lost without some grasp of the local language.
6. It's Sexy
Most people like to hang around others who are similar to themselves, but there are a few people who enjoy meeting people who are different. People who think differently or act differently. And what better way to start diversifying your friend group than learning a new language?
Of course, sometimes making new friends leads to attracting a partner. You’ll hear a lot of people say that they find a certain language or accent to be really sexy. Think of Gael Garcia Bernal’s Spanish or Monica Bellucci’s Italian, and you start to get the idea (yes, they’re both beautiful people already, but the language certainly helps). Learn a famous poem in a foreign language and you might just have that certain person swooning over you -- especially since most of us think it's real sexy when our partner can speak a foreign language.
7. It'll Make You Smarter and in Better Mental Health
You might not be aware of this particular perk of learning a new language. New research published on the New York Times shows that being bilingual actually makes you smarter! So you don’t need to be interested in other cultures or overseas travel or improving your employability to enjoy the benefits of knowing a foreign language.
In a world that is increasingly interdependent, we can no longer afford to remain monolingual. Learning foreign languages is no longer a pastime: it is a necessity.St. John's University
Studies have shown that speaking a second language can improve your cognitive skills, even those that don't relate to language at all. According to a Harvard study, bilingual babies showed advanced skills in monitoring changes in their environment, compared to monolingual babies. A University of Chicago study showed that thinking in a foreign language helps to reduce biases in your decision-making. There’s even research that has demonstrated that being bilingual can help delay the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Learn a New Language; Take Your Life to a New Level
Of course, you’re not limited to having just one specific motivation to learn a new language – most people do it for a multitude of reasons. Mark from CET says, “We used to say there were two types of students who chose to study [a foreign language]: those who did it because they were turned on by the language and culture, and those that thought they could leverage their language skills into careers in business or government. I think the lines have blurred over the years, and it’s harder to see two distinct groups.”
Big words like polyglot and multilingual don’t scare us here at Go Overseas, and they shouldn’t scare you either. Learn a new language, and take your school, work, and life to a new level.
Interested in learning a new language abroad? Browse our lists of language schools abroad, along with ratings and reviews.Photo Credits: Global Volunteer Network.