Why learn languages?

by | Mar 4, 2014


10 good reasons why you should be learning a foreign language

“I speak English, so I don’t have to learn a foreign language….”
Everyone speaks English, right? Well, certainly not everyone speaks English. According to the CIA World Fact Book, only 5.6 % of the world’s total population speaks English as a primary language. That number doubles when people who speak English as a second or third language are counted. By conservative estimates, that means that well over four-fifths of the world’s population does not speak English.
It’s true that English has become a global lingua franca over the past several decades. This fact, however, really should have little effect on your decision to learn a foreign language. The attitude that English alone is enough in fact creates self-imposed limitations. To remain monolingual is to stunt your educational development, to restrict your communication and thinking abilities, and to deny yourself the ability to fully appreciate and understand the world in which you live. Learning another language opens up new opportunities and gives you perspectives that you might never have encountered otherwise. Personal, professional, social, and economic considerations all point to the advantages of learning foreign languages. Still not convinced? Here are 10 very good reasons why you should be learning a foreign language:

1. To increase global understanding

“… [E]ffective communication and successful negotiations with a foreign partner–whether with a partner in peacekeeping, a strategic economic partner, a political adversary, or a non-English speaking contact in a critical law enforcement action –requires strong comprehension of the underlying cultural values and belief structures that are part of the life experience of the foreign partner.” – Dr. Dan Davidson, President of the American Councils on International Education
“A different language is a different vision of life.” – Federico Fellini, Italian film director

“No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.” – Mohandas K. Gandhi, Indian nationalist and spiritual leader

Learning another language gives the learner the ability to step inside the mind and context of that other culture. Without the ability to communicate and understand a culture on its own terms, true access to that culture is barred. Why is this important? In a world where nations and peoples are ever more dependent upon on another to supply goods and services, solve political disputes, and ensure international security, understanding other cultures is paramount. Lack of intercultural sensitivity can lead to mistrust and misunderstandings, to an inability to cooperate, negotiate, and compromise, and perhaps even to military confrontation. Intercultural understanding begins with individuals who have language abilities and who can thereby provide one’s own nation or community with an insider’s view into foreign cultures, who can understand foreign news sources, and give insights into other perspectives on international situations and current events. For survival in the global community, every nation needs such individuals. A person competent in other languages can bridge the gap between cultures, contribute to international diplomacy, promote national security and world peace, and successfully engage in international trade.

As globalization and mobility and communications are bringing the world ever closer together, ever more urgent is the need for global citizens to be competent in other languages. The United States is the only industrialized country that routinely graduates students from high school who lack knowledge of a foreign language. Whereas 52.7% of Europeans are fluent in both their native tongue and at least one other language, only 9.3% of Americans are fluent in both their native tongue and another language. This statistic does not bode well for the future of America in a global society. The upward trend in language learning must accelerate if the U.S. is to continue to be a major participant on the international stage.

Book tip: Here is an additional resource that underscores just how critical it is for English speakers to be learning foreign languages:

Why You Need a Foreign Language and How to Learn One, by Edward Trimnell, 236 p. (2005)                         The author convincingly demonstrates why a knowledge of languages other than English is essential if native speakers of English are to compete successfully in the global marketplace, to understand others, and to protect themselves from emerging threats throughout the world. This is the newly revised and expanded version of the 2003 edition.

2. To improve employment potential

“[T]he English language alone is probably sufficient if all we need to do is buy our products abroad, if we need to purchase foreign goods and services. But when it comes to selling a product abroad, you have to understand the psychology and the belief structure of your client. If you are selling America abroad and telling America’s story abroad […] then you have to understand the value systems of that foreign public that you are speaking to.” – Dr. Dan Davidson, President of the American Councils on International Education

If businesses are to effectively compete in a global economy, they must learn to deal with other cultures on their own terms. Companies that plan to do business abroad therefore have a dire need for bilingual or multilingual employees. Businesses that intend to compete internationally need employees who can competently communicate in the locales where they do business. Employees who speak one language can communicate only with people who speak that same language.
Business is not the only area of employment where language competencies are needed, however. Multiple government agencies, the travel industry, engineering, communications, the field of education, international law, economics, public policy, publishing, advertising, entertainment, scientific research, and an broad array of service sectors all have needs for people with foreign language skills.
Whatever your career goals, knowing a language certainly won’t hurt your employability. Chances are that knowing languages will open up employment opportunities that you would not have had otherwise. And you will be able to command a greater salary in the workplace. All else being equal, knowing languages gives you an edge over monolingual applicants competing for the same jobs.
Which language would be most beneficial in the career you’d like to pursue? See our Career Resources pages for help deciding!
Book tips: Here are some additional resources that make a solid connection between foreign languages and employment potential and offer practical guidance in using languages to land a job:

Great Jobs for Foreign Language Majors, by Julie DeGalan, 272 p. (2007). This book discusses career options for foreign language majors and covers every aspect of the job search, including assessment of skills and talents, exploring options, making a smooth transition from college to career, conducting an effective job search, and landing the job. A variety of jobs are represented, with worthwhile advice concerning the strategies involved in securing these positions.
Careers in Foreign Languages, by Blythe Camenson, 256 p. (2001). Both first-time job hunters and those looking to change careers will benefit from exploring the rewarding paths outlined here. Detailed overviews of a range of professions and expert advice covering the entire job-search process show readers how to launch a successful career of their choice.
The World is a Class: How and Why to Teach English Overseas, by Caleb Powell, 66 p. (2002). This compact volume contains much practical information about how to teach English just about anywhere that people want to learn English as as a foreign language. Gives beginners a broad overview of issues to consider, pitfalls to avoid, cultural differences to be aware of, how to negotiate a contract and communicate effectively with employers and more. This book is definitely worth the modest price for anyone thinking about or just beginning a stint teaching English abroad.

3. To increase native language ability

“Those who know nothing of foreign languages, knows nothing of their own.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Research shows that knowledge of other languages boosts students’ understanding of languages in general and enables students to use their native language more effectively. This applies to specific language skills as well as overall linguistic abilities. Foreign language learners have stronger vocabulary skills in English, a better understanding of the language, and improved literacy in general. Higher reading achievement in the native language as well as enhanced listening skills and memory have been shown to correlate with extended foreign language study. These results are apparent in several studies as well as in test scores. With each additional year of foreign language instruction taken, a student’s scores on college and graduate school entrance exams such as the SATs, ACTs, GREs, MCATs, and LSATs improve incrementally.

4. To sharpen cognitive and life skills

“We have strong evidence today that studying a foreign language has a ripple effect, helping to improve student performance in other subjects.” – Richard Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton

Because learning a language involves a variety of learning skills, studying a foreign language can enhance one’s ability to learn and function in several other areas. Children who have studied a language at the elementary level score higher on tests in reading, language arts, and math. People who have learned foreign languages show greater cognitive development in areas such as mental flexibility, creativity, and higher order thinking skills, such as problem-solving, conceptualizing, and reasoning.
In addition to cognitive benefits, the study of foreign languages leads to the acquisition of some important life skills. Because language learners learn to deal with unfamiliar cultural ideas, they are much better equipped to adapt and cope in a fast-changing world. They also learn to effectively handle new situations. In addition, the encounter with cultures different from one’s own leads to tolerance of diverse lifestyles and customs. And it improves the learner’s ability to understand and communicate with people from different walks of life.

5. To improve chances of entry into college or graduate school

Today, most colleges and universities require a minimum of two years of high school foreign language instruction for admission. And once enrolled in an undergraduate program, students are likely to find that their college or university prescribes foreign language courses as requirement for the degree. The majority of universities rightly consider knowledge of a foreign language and culture part of what every educated person should know. Many majors in the arts and humanities, in natural sciences and behavioral and social sciences, and in professional fields, also require the study of one or more languages to ensure success in the given field.
For those planning to continue on to graduate study in most any field, knowledge of a second and sometimes even a third language is often a prerequisite for admission. From mathematics to anthropology, from biology to art history, you will find that many if not most graduate programs require some kind of foreign language knowledge of their applicants. In some programs, graduate students are required to gain a reading knowledge of other languages as a degree requirement, especially in doctoral programs. This is because important research is often published in non-English language books and professional journals.
Even when an undergraduate or graduate institution doesn’t require foreign language study, it’s often recommended by programs. Knowing a language can’t hurt your application, and is highly likely to make you a more competitive candidate in the admissions process.
These books are excellent examples of instructional approaches intended to prepare candidates to meet graduate school requirements:

German for Reading Knowledge, by Hubert Jannach, Richard Alan Korb, 336 p. (2004). This is THE book for teaching academic reading skills in German to students in the humanities, arts, and social sciences in particular. It can be used independently or as a course textbook to provide future researchers with the German abilities necessary to independently read and understand specialized literature in their fields.
French for Reading, by Karl C. Sandberg, Eddison C. Tatham, 526p. (1997). The book’s preface underscores the need for graduate students to be versed in other languages: “A few years ago in one of the major universities in the United States a graduate student of botany was preparing to defend his doctoral dissertation…. [H]e was not sure of the meaning of a certain article in French in the general area of his dissertation. When he ad someone from the French Department translate it for him, he found that all of his research had been only the duplication of experiments performed by a French botanist two years before.” The book teaches the learner the basic elements of French and gives opportunities to practice and test comprehension of the material. It’s goal is to teach learners to read a text in French and to be able to understand it easily and accurately.

6. To appreciate international literature, music, and film

“The many great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, of religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible: The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden. If you don’t want paradise, you are not human; and if you are not human, you don’t have a soul.” – Thomas Moore, Irish poet, satirist, and composer

Most of the world’s literary and artistic works have been written in languages other than English. A translation of a text can never be fully true to the intent, beauty, style, and uniqueness of its original. A translation is always to a large degree subject to the interpretation of the translator, not least because some elements of languages simply don’t have translations in other languages. Word plays, metaphors, innuendoes, cultural references and culturally loaded vocabulary words, and formulations unique to the original language often get lost in translation. To be able to fully appreciate literature, theater, music, and film in other languages, one must be able to access them in their original form.

7. To make travel more feasible and enjoyable

“Here speeching American.” – A sign in a Mallorcan shop entrance
“Cold shredded children and sea blubber in spicy sauce.” – From a menu in China
“Refund!” – On a “Caution! Wet floor!” sign in a McDonald’s restaurant in Italy

Though it’s possible to travel to foreign countries without speaking the native language, your experience will be largely shaped by your ability or inability to see beyond the surface of the culture. When you lack the ability to communicate in the native language, you cannot fully participate in day-to-day life, understand the culture, or communicate with the people. The language barrier can be anywhere from frustrating to downright dangerous. When you know the language, you have the comfort of being able to successfully navigate all sorts of situations, like order meals in restaurants, ask for and understand directions, find accommodations and perhaps negotiate cheaper prices, and meet and talk with natives, to name only a few. In most countries, people will appreciate attempts to use their language. You will be able to communicate more completely and have a deeper, more satisfying travel experience.
It’s true that in tourist areas English may be spoken. However, even if the natives know some English, many are uncomfortable speaking it, particularly beyond their limited interactions with tourists. In addition, these well-beaten paths are not places where you will get to know the country you’re visiting — they cater to tourists and provide a watered-down and often stereotypical and commercialized version of the culture both to meet and profit from tourists’ expectations. If you intend to stray from the tourist centers and explore the real country and really get to know it, you must know the language. Your language ability will allow you to see and do things that many visitors cannot.

8. To expand study abroad options

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost, American poet

Because relatively few Americans are competent in foreign languages, competition for study abroad programs in English-speaking countries is sometimes intense. Unfortunately, students often shy away from studying in countries where English is not the native language for all the wrong reasons. They mistakenly believe that their grades will suffer, that their language proficiency isn’t adequate, or that they won’t be able to fit in or understand the culture.
Simply your willingness to learn a language can make you an apt candidate for many study abroad programs. Some foreign programs require no prior language experience and offer an intensive immersion experience prior to the selected program of study. Other programs require only a few semesters of prior language instruction. Whatever program you choose, continued language study while in the foreign country is typical. The benefit is that students can leave the language classroom and immediately put into practice what they have learned in class. Because students can focus on their language development while learning about the culture, their daily experiences and courses complement one another, leading to comparable or even better grades than at the home institution, where students often take a myriad of courses that have little or no connection.
For advanced language students, the opportunities are even greater. Applicants at the advanced skill level can participate in programs that allow them to be fully immersed and integrated into the academic and social life of the country in which they are studying. See our study abroad pages for more information.
Book tips: In addition, the following books address multiple study abroad issues in greater depth:

Study Abroad 101, by Wendy Williamson, 196 p. (2008) 101 questions and answers about study abroad, from before you apply to after you return home. Covers such topics as: Narrowing Down the Options, Planning your Trip, Health and Safety Concerns, Managing Money Abroad, Life in Another Country, Living with the Locals, Keeping in Touch with Home, Life After Study Abroad, Top Secrets You Should Know.
Study Abroad: How to Get the Most Out of Your Experience, by Michele-Marie Dowell, Kelly P. Mirsky, 208 p. (2002) Once you’ve decided to embark on the study abroad journey, this book is a must. Reflecting on your experience is the single most important way to reap the greatest rewards of studying abroad and this book guides you in doing just that. It guides you through pre-departure, on-site, and re-entry phases of your experience, and stimulates personal development, learning about your own and the target culture and about learning languages in general, and encourages you to connect your experience to your career plans. A must-have for anyone planning to study abroad!

9. To increase understanding of oneself and one’s own culture

“The individual’s whole experience is built upon the plan of his language.” – Henri Delacroix, French painter and filmmaker
“As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.” – Margaret Mead, American anthropologist

Knowing another language and culture affords you the unique opportunity of seeing yourself and your own culture from an outside perspective. There are aspects of your language, yourself, your life, and your own culture that you accept as absolute and universal or that you have never even considered until you encounter a culture and people who do things in a much different way than you’re used to. Contact with other languages and cultures gives you the unique opportunity to step outside your familiar scope of existence and view your culture’s customs, traditions, and norms as well as your own value system through the eyes of others. Conversely, a monolingual, monocultural view of the world severely limits your perspective. Intercultural experiences have a monumental influence on shaping your identity, heightening your self-awareness, and giving you a full appreciation of your life situation. These things can happen only with knowledge of cultures and languages other than your own.

10. To make lifelong friends

“The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway.” – Henry Boye, author

Knowing other languages effectively increases the number of people on the globe with whom you can communicate. And people who speak other languages fully appreciate the effort and desire learners expend to get to know their culture and to communicate with them. Whether through meeting foreign exchange students on your campus or local immigrants in your community, whether getting to know natives or international students while studying abroad, or whether establishing a connection with a pen pal in another country, your ability to speak other languages and your interest in other cultures can connect you deeply with people around the globe.

Anyone who has told you that learning another language is impractical, unrewarding, or simply a waste of your precious time is doing you a great disservice. Take advantage and enhance your life … learn a language!

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