Why should you learn a (new) foreign language?

Apart from the obvious, for the sake of it, (nah, just kidding!) because you love that specific language, because you like the culture and because it looks good on your resume, (if you actually can speak it fluently), I have other reasons behind why you should learn another or (if this is the first time you are learning a new language) A foreign language.

We live in a multicultural world. And we see more and more that more people with different cultural backgrounds move from one country to another. They do that to obtain a better life, career and improve their social status and when that happens, you inevitably are forced to learn the language of the country you move in. The people that move countries to study for short or long term also have this need and some have the desire to learn the language of the host country. There is lots of travellers, digital nomads and entrepreneurs that set their businesses up in other countries. All these people come with their own language and the people living in that country are interested in their culture too, they are interested in their language too and in everything surrounding the mystery of coming into one’s country.

It’s not just the people that come to live, work or study into another country that are interested in learning a new language or THAT language, it’s also the people that already represent the country that have an interest in the language of the immigrants. It’s a cultural exchange as much as it is a language exchange. It is not as much seen in the UK from what I hear from people, not many are interested in learning another language, but there are still new foreign language learners through the ones that do not decide to leave their country and emigrate, and they are interested in knowing the basics to better cope with immigrants and to visit other countries. Common languages in Europe for people to study are English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian.

Why do we even learn languages in school? There are many reasons behind this. Even if you think, it’s not something interesting or useful, you are actually wrong. If there is something worthwhile your time and effort in school, it’s foreign languages. What does learning foreign languages mean and why do we have to have it in the curriculum? Why? Well:

-To open our possibilities for work, first in our own countries, because businesses are collaborative with other countries and so, countries need to prepare its population for other companies or investors taking over, improving the life of its citizens with maybe better jobs, better wages, better conditions. You may think that the first reason behind the opening of our horizons would be to have this possibility to go abroad and make it easy for people living in a new country, but it is not. The first reason is to adapt to the local economy changing and adapting to a global multicultural economy. If all nations are to thrive, better multicultural communication must occur. That can happen if we speak each others languages, understand each others cultures and adapt to it. Speaking to someone in their own native language not only makes them more open to us (whether as an individual or a business) but also respectful of the idea that we are trying and we are interested. Because we care (if we think in this example, we are the immigrants – and think about yourself, if you meet a foreigner who can speak your language, you are more prone to respect that person). The same way for someone coming in the host country. Secondly, the reason learning a new foreign language can enhance our work options, is through the common aspect of moving to work and live in that particular country we are learning the language of. Learning each others nations languages means the nations can exchange people, human resources and business options for better profits. In the end, we are all thinking about a better more sustainable financial life.

-To improve the brain’s functions and memory because learning a new language it’s not just about language, it’s about memory and learning in general. The brain needs constant stimuli to grow more synapses, to help with memory and to enhance efficiency, productivity and prevent neuro-degenerative diseases that appear in life usually if the brain is not trained. Just as we train our bodies, we need to train our brains too. It’s a muscle, and you may have heard that by now so many times. In research, bilinguals have been shown to have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer disease than monolinguals. This suggests that learning another language does for your mind what exercise does for your body, enabling you to retain your language skills into old age.

-To communicate with other people and understand different cultures, thus helping people to become more tolerant, more understanding, better equipped to deal with future global challenges. I have heard many polyglots speaking about the impact their language skills and foreign language learning has had on their ability to cope with cultural differences and people in general. From my own experience, I can say the same thing. You become more tolerant, less judgemental and more understanding, more compassionate. This can only do good for us in life and improve not only our life quality with people, but these people’s lives with us. The way they interact with us is also a struggle for them, not just for us. The cultural background plays a fundamental role in perceiving and reacting to other people’s communication to us. That cultural background is reflected in the language that we all speak. The way we speak in our native language usually shows something about how our brains work, how we think, how we act, how we were thought to live. Every culture has that. Everyone’s language is important because it is impregnated in their behaviour, in their attitude in life, in their work life and in their daily experiences. So, if we all collectively are bilinguals rather than monolinguals, we will make the world a better place, simply because we will all understand each other much better, maybe not (as that may be impossible) globally or in a specific language, but at an emotional level. We develop our emotional intelligence when we are bilinguals. Imagine how much of an understanding and more meaningful human relations we can all have, if we are polyglots. And you do not need to speak another language at a proficiency level. And to be a polyglot, you do not need to know 10 languages. If it’s 3 languages already that you speak, you are a polyglot.

From my own experience, especially because I work in a call centre environment for a financial institution and I get to speak with people from all walks of life and with multicultural backgrounds, I can say, that I relate differently to people whose languages I know, compared to people whose languages I know nothing about. And what do I mean by that? Well, I have noticed that I am much helpful and enjoy interacting to people who are native speakers of French, Spanish, Italian rather than let’s say Indians or Chinese or Polish. Stereotypes also play a huge role, and when you really cannot understand people over the phone and their accent really cannot make you understanding of their situation (because a lot of the times, you think, if I live here just like you, why can’t you properly learn English too?) you tend to act or behave, think and respond like a monolingual rather than a bilingual. And it is a strange thing. I am not saying this happens solely with the examples given above, those are just examples and by no means I wish to say that I am finding it difficult to communicate with people from India, China or Poland. It’s an example, just as it would be if I said Javanese (yes, with V, there’s no spelling error there), Malay or Bulgarian. I am referring to languages to which I was not exposed and was not exposed to understanding their culture or lifestyle, therefore their language seems unimportant. And them not being able to speak it, makes them less able to be seen as important. And that’s where the trouble is.

We think that if someone does not speak our language (or the common language used to communicate, example here English) that person won’t be able to understand us, we won’t be able to understand them, because we do not know their native language, and (since they immigrated here) we need to distance ourselves from that person because we cannot communicate and we do not want to make it hard on ourselves to try to understand. It takes a lot of effort to understand someone else. To listen. That effort is something that our brains are not used to. Our brains are hard wired to learn familiarity and to react to familiarity in a way of by default type, with less processing thought, with little effort. Effort requires energy from our part, which when dealing with something unfamiliar, like in this case, a foreigner who is trying to articulate something in English, we do not want to deal with this. They should change THEIR attitude and learn it better, if they moved here, right? (common misjudgement) That’s what we have all felt at some point in time. THEY should make the effort. Not us. Well, that’s what will change when you become bilingual or study to turn yourself into a polyglot. YOU WILL CHANGE THAT IGNORANT ATTITUDE TOWARDS PEOPLE. And if we could all try this, we would be in a much happier place. Tolerance is not just about sexual orientation and gender issues. Tolerance is as per definition the ability or willingness to accept and embrace the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with. It’s understanding that we are all different and we are all good enough and worthy EQUALLY.

In my own experience, I have become tolerant because I knew more languages, but I also improved and enlarged my tolerance because I became interested in even more languages. I purchased myself this wonderful book named Babel, written by Gaston Dorren, a true polyglot that speaks Dutch, Limburgish, English, German and Spanish and reads French, Afrikaans, Frisian, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Luxembourgish and Esperanto and while writing Babel he attempted learning Vietnamese. Now, 2 of those languages, I was not aware they existed, until I read about him! So, there’s so many things we are not aware of and the fact that we are not open to new things, because they are not familiar to us, makes us intolerant. This book, Babel takes you through an exploration of the world through 20 most spoken languages on the Globe. That’s the book that opened my eyes more to the language of Asia mostly. When you read about its history, the people and the language itself, you make comparisons with your own language and you integrate that into an understanding which makes you more compassionate and you are better prepared to not only understand someone from that culture at a human interaction level, but their point of view, their English topic which would a lot of the times be representing the way they think and speak in their language, and that’s just fascinating to me. Remember this quote every time you struggle with someone, and I think of it each time I find it difficult to understand someone, especially over the phone:

“Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language.” H.Jackson Brown

I also think of myself when I speak to someone else. When you are a polyglot, and you are working in a country that is not that used to learning and speaking another language, you are seen as quite smart. Of course, I think of myself as smart, but you are seen as smart and sometimes a little bit different than if you spoke broken English. When your English is good you are appreciated but you are also gloriously making other people jealous of you and their behaviour towards you is a little bit mean sometimes. They do attempt to see if you really understand what they have meant towards you with their words or actions, or attitude. and when I experience that, I immediately think if I may act like that with other people whose background I do not relate to or are not that aware of. Being a polyglot and learning another or a new foreign language makes you very attentive to other people, sensible to their sayings to you, sensitive and perceptive of all subtle communication. You truly not just hear, you listen and understand the meaning behind their words much, much more.

If you learn another language or study to understand it, you will also experience a feeling of improved self esteem. You are able to communicate in other language. You are able to work, collaborate or study in a foreign language. You may be bilingual or a polyglot. You are amazing! Trust me, you are to be feared by other professionals, because knowing another language makes you more attractive to potential employers simply because having the foreign language skill you are an asset not just because of the language skill, but because of the meaning it has your knowledge for your attitude and work capacity in general. Tolerance to other cultures, means also the fact that you are more tolerant in general. When you expand one ability, you don’t just expand the ability to be tolerant only with people of other cultures, you expand your ability in general for tolerating new, emerging things that pop in your life. And that may be a schedule at work, a shift, a workload, etc. You are more adaptable. More flexible. When you are thought to be like that, you are believed to be more reliable, you are believed to have perseverance and you are looked at as more open to challenges, which is what every company needs, someone to do the job and not fade down in the face of difficulties. That’s why you need to learn another language.

And with so many and free options these days, there is nothing stopping you. A competitive advantage starts with the capacity – in EVERY SINGLE JOB MARKET – to be able to learn something FAST and be able to ACT ON IT, to go and work with the unfamiliar. Are you ready for that?

Any thoughts?

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