It’s fair to say most people wish they could speak at least one foreign language. Sometimes the envy arises on vacation, as you watch your friend get a smile out of the barmaid with a wise crack in her native tongue. Other times it’s just the awe of meeting someone completely bilingual who can switch effortlessly from one to the next. But what stops most people from applying themselves to learn a language is very simple. The notion that it’s probably hard. And it probably just ain’t worth the hassle.
You can see why people think this way. English is everywhere, and unless you’re super adventurous you’re unlikely to find yourself needing to speak another language to get by. There are also other things you could be doing with your time, like learning to code, perfecting your lasagna or watching re-runs of Scrubs.
But if you’re somewhat sociable and enjoy communication, learning a second language is one of the most rewarding forms of self-improvement. Allow me to explain why it’s definitely worth learning a second language.
1. Travel becomes more rewarding.
Here’s the truth about these smug, hairy bastards who seem to always be on the road. Yes, they might have gone to a lot of countries and they might have taken some great photos. They do look annoyingly good with a top knot. But the spiritual enlightenment that has become such a core part of their identity is restricted by the fact that they only speak English. This means that, wherever they have gone, they have always been on the fringes of the action. Observers rather than players. That would hurt for them to hear, but it’s true.
When you can speak a second language, travel becomes more immersive. You don’t only know where the best bars are; you can go to them with the guy who just told you. You can actually connect with the Peruvian farmer who’s putting you up for the night as you trek across the Andes. You can start doing things local people do, instead of just following the Australian students you met at your hostel. You start getting opportunities to give something back everywhere you go. Your kindness, your wit. Your friendship.
When you speak another language, people treat you better. They don’t just see you as a privileged white tourist, but as someone they can perhaps learn from. You’ll soon discover how warm some cultures can be. They’ll want to look after you in exchange for nothing but sharing a bit of who you are. And when you can make friends who really know the local culture, you start to experience things most tourists never get to.
2. You learn to think in different ways.
In her fascinating TED talk, cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky tells us “the beauty of linguistic diversity is that it reveals to us just how ingenious and how flexible the human mind is.” Because each language has a different way of describing what we see and feel in the world, she argues that they have effectively created their own cognitive universes. Multiple words for ‘blue’ in Russian change how Russians see the color blue. In other languages there’s no left or right when it comes to giving directions.
While these might just seem like the kinds of facts you bring up at the dinner table when it’s gone quiet, they’re actually things you become fascinated by when you learn other languages. You come across words that can’t be translated. Jokes that are actually pretty funny but don’t make sense in English. This is where languages – even those as close to English as Spanish or German – can become genuinely mind-expanding.
On one hand you start to understand cultural traits more deeply, like why the Chinese are more practical and the French more romantic. But more importantly you start to break down walls in your mind and understand new concepts. You become more creative producing your own language and perhaps just more creative in general.
3. It can be beneficial to your career.
Unless it’s Mandarin and you work in finance, you probably shouldn’t learn a language just for money. Because even if you really want to live and work in a foreign country – which is an obvious reason to learn a language – you’re probably not doing that for money. And in almost every profession, there’s probably a better thing you can learn to boost your salary. That said, studies have shown that being able to speak a second can bring higher income. Statistics in The Economist suggest that British workers, for example, are attaining higher bonuses by speaking French, German or Spanish.
On many levels, being bi- or multilingual can help you in the professional world. If your company trades internationally it could get you more travel opportunities or just make your position more secure. It slightly increases the number of new jobs available to you. And if you went out of your way to learn the language later in your life, it shows employers that you are committed and capable of learning new skills. That’s going to be looked upon favorably by pretty much any hiring manager.
4. It just feels good.
If you don’t travel, work or think, then the above three points might not have resonated with you. In that case, just do it because it feels good.
It really does feel good. Learning a second language is hard at first, but once you’re able to have even basic conversations with native speakers the endorphins will start to flow. Understanding a film in another language is a simply marvellous feeling. You feel smarter, more confident, even more attractive in some cases. Try taking out that Mexican girl and showing her you can speak a bit of Spanish – you’ll understand. You now know something most of your friends and family don’t.
Working on something that allows you to become closer to other people is a guaranteed better mood-booster than burying yourself way mapping out how you can cut your calorie intake. And speaking of which, you’ve probably already read that learning a second language can improve your memory, make it easier for you to learn and generally make your brain healthier. Well, those studies are pretty convincing. So if you feel like there’s something missing, if you want to feel better about yourself and more able, maybe it’s time to start learning Spanish.