If you’re not already learning a language, you’re running late.
You should have started yesterday!
But why should you learn a foreign language?
A better question might be, why should you not learn a language?
I mean, do you love making travel more complicated? Do you have an aversion to delicious, authentic food?
Some other great reasons to avoid learning a language might be that you don’t want to experience a better brain, better grades, better pay or a better social life.
Who wants any of those things, right?
If you do happen to be one of those rare, crazy people who wants to enjoy (1) cheaper, easier and more fulfilling travel, (2) a bigger, healthier, faster brain, (3) higher grades at school, (4) a better job with higher pay and (5) a richer social life, by all means, read on!
And for those of you out there who are already learning another language (or who are already totally multilingual), sit back and enjoy reading about the awesome rewards you’re already reaping from your efforts every day.
We don’t just stop at the obvious reasons to learn a language, we’re going to share all the practical, real-world benefits of learning a foreign language, as told by someone who’s been down that road before (and survived).
15 Undeniable Reasons to Start Learning a Foreign Language Yesterday
1. Foreign languages make transportation cheaper & easier.
It’s 11 pm.
You just got off a 14-hour flight and all you want to do is get to your hotel and fall face-first into your pillow.
But first you have to get there!
If you are armed with at least a smattering of navigational terms in the local language (like, “I want to go to…,” “turn right here…,” “how much will it cost to get to…?” and so on) you will be able to take whichever means of transportation makes most sense based on your budget and schedule.
Without the right lingo, however, you are limited to expensive options like taxis or slow means like airport shuttles.
Save yourself some time, money and grief: if you know absolutely no words in the local language of your travel destination, buy a good phrasebook and spend some time pre-flight (or even on the plane) learning basic transportation phrases. Lonely Planet is a good resource for finding high-quality phrasebooks for a wide variety of languages. They also have travel guides for nearly 200 countries that can help you out with making smart decisions abroad. A little can go a long way (pun intended).
In Bangladesh, for example, I sometimes took rickshaws to quickly zip through the crowded streets after work—a fast, efficient and extremely cheap option that wasn’t possible for my monolingual American colleagues. They had to wait on the availability of the company’s bilingual drivers. I had only learned a tiny amount of the language, but it was enough to get me home to my bed.
2. Foreign languages make lodging cheaper, easier & more authentic.
Just as a few key phrases will help you get to your hotel that much faster and cheaper, the same is true for choosing which hotel to stay at in the first place.
While budget-travel guidebooks aim to list good, affordable places to stay, ironically, inclusion in these books often drives up prices, worsens service and leads to fewer vacancies.
Plus, many guidebook authors limit their searches to businesses with English-speaking staff and English websites, ostensibly to make your stay—and arguably, their research—easier. But with a good command of the local language, you can stay just about anywhere you want, not just the hotels and hostels listed in the guidebooks or with fancy bilingual websites.
This means lower rates, fewer people and a better (or at least more authentic) experience.
3. Foreign languages make dining cheaper, easier & more authentic.
Unless you are the host of a travel show, you probably don’t have a local fixer to find cool, authentic places to eat.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be Anthony Bourdain to eat where the locals eat.
You just need to learn some of the local language and then ask around. But when I say “ask around,” I don’t mean inquiring with an employee at the airport tourist information booth or the concierge at your hotel. What I mean is asking your taxi driver or the guy behind the counter at a convenience store about their favorite restaurants. This valuable intel will usually lead you to far tastier and cheaper fare than any tourism board or guidebook ever could.
4. Foreign languages make travel more interesting.
The local language is “cultural scuba gear.”
Without it, you are limited to the surface: tourist traps and politically-correct English translations.
With it, however, you can go as deep as you desire, unlocking secrets about the people, places and history that make up a culture.
What you find won’t always be pretty, but it will always be interesting.
For example, when visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, I noticed that there were subtle (but profound!) differences between what some of the Japanese and English placards said. The shrine is already a controversial place as it honors some convicted war criminals from WWII, but if you see what’s written in the Japanese signage, you might find the place even more controversial!
5. Foreign languages & dialects let you travel to more places.
A valid passport may get you to just about any country in the world (assuming you don’t want to go to North Korea), but getting to and actually enjoying a country are two very different beasts.
You can probably get by with English alone in most major cities, but venturing into the small towns, villages and rural gems that make travel worthwhile will be much easier if you understand and can produce at least a modicum of the local language.
And beyond just learning the official language of a country, you will get a lot of mileage out of learning regional dialects as well. For example, your Mandarin will be of great use in Taipei City, while Taiwanese will be more beneficial in southern Taiwan.
6. Learning a foreign language improves memory & cognitive performance.
Studies have shown that bilinguals tend to have bigger brains, better working memories and superior speed when switching between different tasks.
Not only do these advantages make it easier to learn yet more languages, they also make it easier to learn, well, anything.
The ability to quickly switch between tasks is especially important in today’s busy “multitasking” world since true multitasking doesn’t actually exist—people that seem to be good at doing lots of things at once are in fact switching very quickly between each of the separate tasks.
Bilingual noodles can do this switching much faster than their monolingual counterparts (likely from the practice they have switching between two languages), making it appear like they can handle many more tasks at once.
7. Learning a foreign language increases self-control & focus.
These improvements in “executive function” are likely the results of the bilingual brain’s constant need to choose the correct language to speak at any given moment and its learned ability to detect which language they are hearing.
8. Learning a foreign language helps protect against Alzheimer’s & dementia.
While degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia have many potential causes, studies show that you can help prevent their development (or at least slow their progress) by learning a foreign language.
For example, one study showed that bilinguals with Alzheimer’s retain brain function longer than monolinguals with the same disease.
9. Bilinguals are star students.
Though I am not a big fan of standardized tests (they only measure a small subset of the numerous brands of intelligence and inevitably lead schools to teach to exams), I cannot ignore their pivotal role in determining one’s future options (e.g. university choices).
So what can one do to improve their ACT or SAT scores?
There are many strategies, but I would argue the best is learning a foreign language. Not only have studies shown that this can help improve your scores on standardized tests, it also leads to stronger listening, reading and writing skills in your native language.
10. Learning another language can improve your first language.
This likely explains the improvements in listening, reading and writing skills that foreign languages are known to impart to former monolinguals.
Moreover, learning other Indo-European languages from which English has borrowed significant amounts of vocabulary (e.g. French) will help you better understand how English became English.
11. Foreign language skills can help you find a better job.
The job market is tough and getting tougher.
More than ever before, you need a way to make you and your résumé stand out from the crowd.
No, adding “Microsoft Word” in the skills section is not going to cut the mustard.
On the other hand, having the words “Mandarin Chinese” or “Arabic” on your CV can certainly impress potential employers. Knowledge of a foreign language can help you get your foot in the door for an interview, and may even ultimately land you the job if you demonstrate the linguistic chops they are looking for.
Furthermore, fluency in a foreign language opens entire swaths of job opportunities abroad which simply are not available to monolingual job hunters.
12. Foreign language skills can help increase your pay.
Already have a job but aren’t happy with your salary?
One powerful strategy is to learn a foreign language.
You can then go to your boss and demonstrate the many ways in which your new language skills can benefit the company, help open up or expand markets and improve communications with foreign branches or clients.
Better Social Life!
13. Foreign languages expand your pool of potential friends.
What is the fastest way to make 1.2 billion friends?
Ha, ha, ha. No, seriously.
Speaking a foreign language (especially one with lots of native speakers) not only opens up a massive pool of potential friends, but it also acts as an instant common denominator when you meet native speakers.
Since so few native English speakers make the effort to learn foreign languages, locals will be impressed with your efforts and curious to learn more about you and why you are learning their language.
14. Speaking a foreign language makes you more attractive.
From “James Bond,” to “The Bourne Identity” and “Limitless,” foreign language skills are a standard cinematic motif for demonstrating a character’s confidence, intelligence, charm and sense of adventure.
Fortunately, you don’t need to become Jason Bourne, get multiple passports and carry a Walther PPK to reap the same benefits.
All you need is to learn a foreign language.
While the process will take more than popping a miracle pill like Bradley Cooper, it’s far easier today than it used to be thanks to amazing online tools, smartphone apps, language exchange sites, etc.
15. Foreign languages can be used for secret communication.
Assuming you are not in a country where the language is widely-spoken, and also assuming you do not happen to be sitting by the one guy in town who knows the language, speaking in a foreign tongue can be a great way to have more private conversations.
The same goes for writing. Using a foreign script can help protect personal or sensitive information from prying eyes.
This approach is not exactly a foolproof Enigma machine, so you should not rely on it for sharing trade secrets or your Grandma’s top-secret buttermilk biscuit recipe passed down for 7 generations. But it at least can make discussing the sordid details of Friday night’s debauchery on the bus a little less embarrassing.
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