Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages. (Dave Barry)
With cross-cultural communication ever more important in our interconnected world, there are many reasons to learn a foreign language. Learning a second language isn’t easy, but compelling practical, professional, personal and intellectual benefits justify the effort. Let’s start with four.
There are some very practical reasons to learn a second language.
“Where is the bathroom?” “Where is a good restaurant nearby?” “Please help me I am so, so lost.” These and several other phrases come to mind as essential things to know how to say to people who don’t understand your English. Being able to communicate in a different language can be more helpful than you think.
It’s good for your brain to learn a second language.
Scientists have shown that being bilingual provides significant benefits similar to learning how to play an instrument. The puzzle like process of learning how to think in a new language stretches and hones your mind, making you into a better multitasker and helping to keep you sharp as you age. Think of becoming fluent in a second language as an investment in your intelligence and good health.
Being fluent in a second language is professionally useful.
In our increasingly globalized world, where cross-cultural communication is necessary for success, it’s a no-brainer that being able to speak another language makes you a more attractive candidate to potential employers and, ultimately, better at what you do.
Learning a second language allows you to communicate with millions of people with whom you couldn’t before. In my experience, if you learn another language well, people who speak that language are impressed by your effort. They open up to you and open doors for you. Because I spoke Italian well I was able to work for an anti-mafia organic farming cooperative in Sicily, gathering research for my senior thesis in college. I could never have had such an important experience without my fluency in a second language.
Of course, the most important reason is that learning a second language is both rewarding and FUN.
I can remember beginning to speak Italian fluently. It was a transcendent, surreal sensation, like riding a bike for the first time; there was this amazing feat happening and I, somehow, was doing it. The beautiful sounds were spilling out of my mouth.
Of course there is always a lot of comedic falling off of said bike in the form of linguistic mistakes. Putting vulgar examples aside, my friend Joel who learned Italian with me once confused “spostare” (to move) with “sposare” (to marry). When we were clearing the table for dinner one night he told me with increasing frustration and volume, as I laughed hysterically, to “sposa lo zaino!” or “marry the backpack!”
My mother studied Chinese in college and once tried translating the English idiom, “I do not follow your train of thought”— not an uncommon feeling when learning another language. Translated back into English, what she’d said was, “I do not follow your fire chariot of self-regard.” The lesson here: don’t translate idioms literally. I have since named my little Honda FIT the Fire Chariot of Self-Regard.
This blog was originally posted October 3, 2012 by SYA Alum Ned Henningsen, SYA Italy Class of 2004. Ned now teaches English at the Winsor School in Boston, MA, after teaching at Miss Porter's School, where he completed the UPenn Residency Master's in Teaching program and coached squash. Before teaching he worked in the admissions office at School Year Abroad. He earned his BA in history, literature and the arts from Stanford, and during his undergraduate career spent two years studying abroad at the University of Bologna in Italy.