What’s The Point In Learning Another Language?

Tom Stevenson
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

German class was the worst. I didn’t get along with the teacher, who thought I was an idiot, nor was I particularly interested in learning German either.

I’d taken the class at the insistence of my parents. The rationale was that it would be useful to learn a second language, it would have benefits down the line. I could see their point, but I wanted to do cookery instead.

In the end, I gave in and took the German class. After three years of being required to study German, I was now doing it for another two voluntary. After a few classes, I wondered why I bothered.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the subject, I was keen to get an A grade. Back before the grading system was changed in the UK, an A grade was the second-highest grade you could get after an A*. I didn’t think it would be too difficult to get an A.

I was wrong.

German was much harder than I anticipated. I think this is one of the reasons I didn’t like the class. My heart wasn’t in it and I meandered on in the delusion that I could somehow get an A grade.

When I got my results back after the end of my studies, I received a C. Not bad, but not brilliant either. Looking back, that was probably about as good a grade I could have got given my approach to learning German.

For years afterwards, I didn’t see the point in learning a language. Despite travelling for a few years, I didn’t see the value to it. Living in English speaking countries such as Australia and New Zealand coloured my view in this regard. It was only when I moved to Barcelona that I realised how useful and vital a second language was.

My Spanish was almost non-existent. English wasn’t as well-spoken as in other European countries and five years learning German wasn’t going to help either.

Over the two years I spent living in Barcelona, I learnt the value of speaking another language. I may not have become fluent in Spanish but I gained an appreciation for the benefits of being fluent in multiple languages.

The experience changed my perspective and made me realise that we in the English speaking world have our heads buried in the sand when it comes to learning languages. Far from falling back on English all the time, we’re selling ourselves short.

Languages are not only beneficial, I’d wager that they’re essential to learn. Here’s why!

Most of the world is bilingual

When you grow up in an English speaking country, one of the things you quickly learn is that there isn’t an appreciation for other languages. This isn’t strictly the case in all English speaking countries. America has a large portion of Spanish speakers, while French is commonly spoken in the Canadian province of Quebec.

But in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, this isn’t the case. I grew up on the border between England and Wales. Not many people outside of the UK know this, but Wales has its own language. If you drive over the border you’ll be greeted by signs in English and Welsh.

Growing up, I always felt like this was a novelty more than anything else. It was interesting to see what words in English translated to in Welsh, but there was no doubt in my mind that learning Welsh was pointless. Why bother when everyone can speak English anyway?

When I moved to Barcelona in 2015, I was confronted by the same reality. Barcelona is in Catalunya, which also has its own language, Catalan. Unlike Welsh, Catalan is more widely spoken and even preferred to the main language, Spanish in the region.

But this time I noticed that I wasn’t so dismissive of the less widely spoken language. Even when I got confused between what was Catalan and what was Spanish when I was trying to learn the latter early on. I realised that the benefits of knowing multiple languages outweighed any perceived downsides.

Outside of the English speaking world, the norm is to be bilingual. If I think of the friends I met while travelling, almost all of them speak multiple languages. One of the girls I lived with in Barcelona speaks Portuguese, Spanish and English fluently, and German to a high level.

As much as we think it’s unique to speak many different languages in the English speaking world, it’s no big deal for everyone else. In fact, it’s the norm with one estimate stating that half of the world’s population is bilingual.

While we native speakers of English have an advantage when it comes to knowing the world’s foremost language, we also have a disadvantage. That is the lack of desire or inclination to learn another language.

Back in the days before I lived abroad, I would have been of the opinion that learning a language was a waste of time. Now I know better. Now I know that not only is it common, but it’s beneficial too.

Speaking another language has career benefits

It may seem strange to think that learning another language can give you an edge in the job market, but it’s true. The ability to speak another language makes you stand out from the rest.

To appreciate this, you have to flip the script on its head if you were born in an English speaking country. We all know that English is the main language in the business world. Therefore, native speakers have a huge advantage in that regard.

They don’t need to learn the language to get a well-paid job. If you’re from a country in Europe or Latin America, that’s not the case. Let’s get real, the demand for Hungarian or Estonian speakers isn’t high. You have no choice but to learn English if you want to work outside of your home country.

But once you’ve learnt English that means you’ve opened doors that native speakers might leave closed. Fluency in two languages means that you might be able to land a role that involves mediating between English speakers and those in your native tongue.

The financial benefits of knowing a second language can be huge over your lifetime. One estimate suggests that the value of knowing a second language may equate to more than $128,000 over a 40 year period!

Not only are you more likely to be considered for a job, but you’re also likely to earn more too!

Learning a language is good for your brain

If you had told me learning a language was good for my cognitive abilities back in German class, I wouldn’t have believed you. ‘Yeah right,’ would have been my response. Yet, there is increasing evidence that shows speaking multiple languages can be beneficial not just financially, but mentally too.

Studies show that while being bilingual didn’t stop people from getting dementia, it did delay the effects. If compared to someone who is monolingual, this means a bilingual individual would display symptoms of the disease five years later on average.

It doesn’t end there, a study of 600 stroke survivors in India reported that the cognitive recovery of those who were bilingual was twice as fast as those who were not.

The evidence seems to point suggest that becoming fluent in multiple languages is good for your health. That it helps to keep you young and stave off cognitive decline.

Seeing as a large portion of the planet is bilingual, and that only being able to speak one language is the exception rather than the norm, this makes sense. Those who are bilingual are doing what our brain appears to be designed to do, switch between languages rather than stay stuck on the same record.

You’ll gain an appreciation for different cultures

Before I moved to Spain, I knew very little about the culture of the country. I had been on holiday there multiple times with my family, but the problem with those type of holidays is that you go to the same resorts as English and end up in what is effectively a ghetto of English speakers.

I remember being excited when I was twelve at discovering that they sold the same chocolate bars in Spain as they did in England. Looking back, I’m amazed at how naive I was.

Every country has stereotypes that we use to depict other nationalities. In England, we refer to the French as frogs, despite the fact they aren’t as widespread a delicacy as many think. We refer to the Spanish as lazy because they have a siesta during the afternoon.

Rightly or wrongly, these stereotypes stick and seep into your consciousness. After a while, you accept them as fact even if you little evidence to back them up. The Spanish stereotype was very much in my mind when I lived there in the early days.

While Barcelona isn’t a typical Spanish city and has its own character, it’s undeniably different from the UK. There were plenty of things that baffled me during my first few months. The extra-long lunch everyone seemed to take, the lack of punctuality and the emphasis on family life rather than work.

At first, this was strange, but the more of the language I learnt and the more interacted with people, the more I came to see the benefits. Lunch could last two hours, which is a bit excessive, but it was much better than the thirty minutes you might get back home.

Showing up late was something that irritated me at first, but I found myself becoming much more laidback when it came to getting somewhere on time. I came to appreciate that there was no need to rush around all the time. The one that really hit home for me was the emphasis on quality time.

In the UK, the work-life balance is very much tilted in favour of work. I found the opposite to be true in Spain. Sure they were more than happy to work but not at the expense of everything else. Far from being lazy Spaniards, I came to realise that they had their priorities right.

The more I immersed myself in the local culture, the more my perspectives changed. With my growing confidence in speaking Spanish, I came to appreciate their way of life even more. The concept of ‘manana’ might seem alien to many, but life is short. It’s to be enjoyed, not spent slaving away 24/7.

Without learning the language, I don't know if that realisation would have ever hit me.

When I think back to my younger self in those German classes, I want to take him outside and kick some sense into him. Sure, the classes weren’t the best, nor was my teacher, but the value of learning another language outweighs all of that.

Learning another language is like adding an extension to yourself. It’s similar to an upgrade in a video game, a more refined and better version of who you were before.

What’s the point of learning another language? It’s something I’ve heard many people say over the years, including myself. My answer would be that it broadens your horizons, allows you to communicate with more people and appreciate their culture. Plus, it’s good for your cognitive health!

If I had to sum it up, I would say this: To speak one language is to live only one life, to speak multiple languages is to live multiple lives.

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