14 Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language

Article by Darren Kenny

14 Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language

What’s the point of learning a foreign language?

In our modern world of Google translate and voice-activated interpretation apps – and a world that is dominated by English – is there any need to learn other languages? Becoming competent in a new language requires time and effort, so is it time well spent?

The truth is, learning a language is about far more than just basic communication. It’s a process through which you grow and develop in ways you can barely imagine before you start, and it offers you insights that allow you to see the world in a fresh new light.

Of course, if you already speak another language or two, you will need no convincing. But for those who are considering starting a new language – as well as for anyone who thinks it’s just a waste of time – here are my top 14 reasons why learning a language is worth every minute it takes.

1 - It improves cognitive ability

It’s widely accepted that bilingualism brings with it a range of cognitive benefits, but this is a good place to start because it makes language learning an “easy sell”.

Simply put, learning a foreign language makes you more intelligent – and who doesn’t want to be smarter?

When learning a language, you need to retain a large amount of vocabulary, and as you can imagine, remembering lots of words helps train your memory.

Speaking a new language also exposes us to new and unfamiliar grammatical structures or seemingly eccentric expressions, and sometimes we need to do mental gymnastics for our brains to accept them. This is then carried over into other intellectual tasks, allowing you to become more mentally flexible.

We express thoughts through words, and knowing more than one language can help increase your ability to understand abstract concepts. It also develops your reasoning and problem-solving skills.

Speaking a second language can improve your critical thinking – thoughts in a second language have been shown to be more logical and less emotionally-charged than those in your native tongue.

Language learning boosts creativity, and people who speak more than one language are also better at switching between two tasks, the key to effective multitasking.

Since learning a language requires time and effort, it develops concentration and patience, valuable attributes in a world where attention spans are short and so much information is reduced to the length of a Tweet.

Finally, kids who speak a second language tend to score well on unrelated tests, consistently outperforming their monolingual classmates in subjects as diverse as mathematics, reading and vocabulary.

In short, with such a long list of cognitive benefits, perhaps the real question should be, why wouldn’t you want to learn a foreign language?

2 - It delays the onset of dementia

As well as making you more intelligent, speaking a foreign language apparently also helps keep your mental faculties intact for longer.

Much remains unknown about degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s, but research suggests that those who speak a second language are less susceptible to developing these conditions, or at least that the onset of such diseases is delayed.

We know that staying physically fit helps keep our bodies healthy for longer, so perhaps our minds also benefit from mental exercise – and speaking a second language is an effective way to do it.

3 - It makes foreign travel easier

Some people might consider these cognitive benefits abstract and intangible. In that case, here’s a more concrete reason for learning a foreign language – it makes foreign travel easier.

Think about something as simple as asking for directions, for example. In some places, people might not speak a word of English and may well shy away from foreigners, but if you can approach them and ask them in their language, they are more likely to help.

Being able to speak their language will put them at ease, and you will achieve better results than if you just try to speak English louder

And even in countries where you don’t speak the local lingo, having learned a foreign language will give you a better awareness of how to understand and make yourself understood.

4 - It makes foreign travel more enriching

The advantages go deeper than just being able to find your way abroad, though. One reason we travel is to learn about the countries we visit and to have meaningful interactions with the locals. However, if you only speak English, your opportunities for this will be limited.

As a monolingual English speaker, you may only be able to visit the regular tourist areas where people are used to foreigners, and you will only be able to interact with people who speak English.

However, if you know the language, you will be able to venture off the beaten track and talk to locals who don’t know English. They might be less used to seeing tourists, and the experience will be more authentic.

Additionally, since you have made the effort to learn their language, you will gain their respect, and you will be able to have far more meaningful interactions than simply handing over money in a shop.

People are likely to be more friendly if you speak their language, and since they might not usually communicate with foreigners, they will probably be curious and keen to talk to you too. As a result, your travel will be far more enriching than if you just follow a tour group and only speak to people who are trying to sell you cheap souvenirs.

5 - It means you are less likely to get ripped off

If you need one more reason to learn a language for travel, it’s this: you’re less likely to be ripped off. If a taxi driver hears you speak his language, he will be less likely to cheat you. If you can haggle in the local language, you will probably get a better price. And if scammers know you can speak their tongue, they are less likely to target you as just another clueless tourist.

6 - It’s a way to travel without leaving your home

As much as many of us love to visit other countries, we can’t be on the road all the time. But learning a foreign language can also be a way to travel at times when you can’t go away.

It’s impossible to learn all the languages of the world, but by learning the language of a country you love, it gives you a way of staying in contact with that country when you can’t be there in person.

Words in other languages don’t have the same associations or connotations, and they resonate differently. This means that learning a language and simply speaking the words can evoke the sights, smells and sounds of the places where that language is spoken, taking you there, even when it’s not possible to travel physically.

7 - It provides an insight into other cultures

You can’t learn a language without learning about the country where it is spoken. Every language is infused with the culture, beliefs and customs of the people who use it, and by studying the language, you will gain a great insight into the lives of its native speakers.

In fact, while you can read about culture in books, I would argue that there is no better way to gain a true understanding and appreciation of a culture, rather than by learning the language, speaking to the people and experiencing that culture for yourself.

When you understand more about other cultures, you are more likely to develop a positive attitude to that culture, the country and its people, and it will teach you to be more tolerant of those who are different from you.

8 - It allows you to make friends from different countries

By learning a language and communicating with the people who speak it, it is almost inevitable that you will make new friends. Diversity is what makes this planet we live on so fascinating, and getting to know people from other countries and other cultures can be extremely rewarding.

You may well become friends with people who don’t speak your language at all, which means the language you have learned has directly allowed you to know someone you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to communicate with.

Learning a new language allows you to meet so many more people than if you remain monolingual – and after all, who doesn’t want to have more friends?

9 - It broadens your world view

We are all products of the cultures we are born into and the languages we grow up speaking, and we all have prejudices and assumptions that are based on the world view this instills in us.

However, by experiencing other cultures and making friends with people who see things in different ways, we open our eyes to the world and gain a broader perspective.

In China, there is a proverb: 井底之蛙 jĭng dĭ zhī wā, which means ‘frog at the bottom of a well’. The frog sits at the bottom of his cold, dank well, and all he sees when he looks up to the sky is a distant circle of light. Yet the frog is content with this meager existence because it’s the only thing he knows; he has no conception of the world outside.

This proverb is used to describe a closed-minded person who takes no interest in outsiders or the wider world. But learning a language is one of the keys that will enable you to escape from the well and see the wonders that lie beyond, allowing you to discover a world you didn’t even know existed.

10 - It gives you a deeper appreciation of your own language and culture

By learning a language, you will gain a deeper understanding of your own culture.

People around the world have an astounding variety of customs and habits, and at first, it’s natural to think that outsiders are strange for their foreign ways.

But learning about how other people speak, think, and act may cause you to question your own values and ideas. Then, you will begin to realize that how people do things where you’re from is not the only way – and that other ways may have equal merit too.

When learning a new language, you will also begin to think more analytically about how and why you say things the way you do, giving you new insights into your native tongue.

Learning a language will expose you to fresh ideas and new ways of thinking, and it will challenge your prejudices, teaching you about things you never thought to question before.

11 - It makes you more self-confident

One common reason people fail at learning languages is that they are afraid to open their mouths and speak. They prefer to wait until they are “good enough” – and since you can only learn a language through practice, this never happens.

This is understandable because nobody wants to make mistakes or look silly in front of other people, but when we learn a language, this is something we all need to overcome. We have to take risks, and we have to dare to try – and when we do, we become a little bit less self-conscious and a bit more confident in ourselves.

12 - It can improve your career prospects

Perhaps you are not convinced by arguments about travel, making friends or learning about other cultures, but maybe you will be more susceptible to arguments that appeal to your career prospects and ultimately, your bank balance.

Our world is an increasingly globalized one, and in many positions, you are likely to be doing business with foreign partners or engaging in international trade.

This means the ability to speak foreign languages is a highly sought-after attribute in today’s job market, perhaps now more than ever.

Being able to speak a foreign language alone might not land you your dream job, but if the HR person has a pile of identical applications for a position and one of the applicants speaks Japanese or Arabic, which one do you think they are most likely to pick?

Employers value foreign language skills, and being able to speak an extra language or two will certainly help you stand out from the crowd.

13 - It increases business opportunities

Or suppose you already have an interesting and lucrative job that involves traveling abroad to meet potential clients. Of course, you can always hire an interpreter for negotiations, but that creates a barrier between you and the person you are negotiating with.

Instead of talking directly to the person, everything passes through an intermediary, and every response comes back to you in the same way. You might be in the same room sitting at the same table, but you can never communicate directly.

But then imagine what it would be like if you could speak their language. You would be able to talk together directly without having to wait for the translation each time, and you would be able to express yourself using your own voice.

In this way, you would be able to build a working relationship much more quickly, and the trust created between you would be that much stronger.

Nelson Mandela famously said, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” If you can speak the language of your business associates, you will gain their respect in a way that wouldn’t be possible through an interpreter. In turn, this is likely to lead to a more profitable working relationship for both of you.

14 - It’s interesting, fun and enriches your life

Many people are put off language learning by their memories of bad experiences at school. To them, learning a language equates to reciting verb tables, memorizing lists of vocabulary and struggling to remember which nouns are masculine or feminine.

However, this is not how it should be. Language learning should be a voyage of discovery, and it should be a fascinating and enjoyable journey.

As long as you know the right ways to go about mastering a language – and here’s a hint, one of them isn’t memorizing vocab lists – it should be a pleasurable and enriching activity.

The goal of learning a language isn’t taking a test or passing an exam, it’s communication. It’s about being able to have a conversation with someone from another country and with a different background; it’s about exchange, learning and growth.

When you speak a new language, you expand your horizons, you open up new possibilities and you create new opportunities. You learn a little bit more about the world we live in, and you also experience an enormous feeling of achievement as you realize you can now use the language for real communication.

And hopefully, you have a lot of fun along the way.

Some of these reasons might not apply to you…but some should

Everybody is different, and not all the arguments on my list will appeal to everyone – but hopefully, you will find at least a few that speak to you.

In many ways, trying to convince a monolingual person of the value of language learning is like trying to extoll the virtues of reading to someone who has never opened a book. You can explain the benefits in words, but until you’ve experienced them for yourself, it’s something that’s impossible to truly comprehend.

And for those who remain skeptical, just remember the frog in his well and the great wide world that he will never see.