The benefits of learning a second language are not all obvious to those who haven’t done it before. There are some benefits that I understood only after having learned a third language. At the same time there are also benefits that are clear before you have even started.
In the non-English speaking world, English is almost always a gateway to a better job. For those living in Europe knowing a foreign language besides English is generally likely to lead to more professional opportunities as well.
Even in the United States more globally spoken languages like Spanish or Mandarin may benefit you professionally depending on what you do for a living.
As a tutor on italki, the vast majority of my students are learning English for work whether it’s a primary or secondary reason. Many of them want to get a job with an international company. Sometimes this means that they want to work remotely for a company abroad or they would like to move to Europe, the United States, Canada, etc.
A large motivator that pushed me to study Mandarin Chinese came from a reoccurring observation of finance job posts. It seemed to me that the most common foreign language skill desired for finance positions was Mandarin.
These examples are more material in nature. The second most common reason that I hear from my students for wanting to learn English is travel, which leads me to the next benefit of learning a language.
There are some benefits that simply add to your personal comfort. Having knowledge of a foreign language that’s spoken in a country you’re traveling to will likely lead to a more pleasant travel experience.
Being able to speak English when traveling internationally in general is beneficial but that is not always guaranteed to be the case.
During my second trip to Brazil, I had a layover in São Paulo before flying to Rio de Janeiro.
Long story short, the airline gave me too short of a layover and I had to catch a different flight to Rio.
The situation in general had me racing around the airport trying to communicate with different airport staff, none of which spoke English with the exception of a few airline staff members of the airlines responsible for my flight.
I had been learning and practicing Portuguese for 5 months but was not proficient enough to carry myself through this scenario smoothly. Had I known Portuguese the experience surely would have been less frustrating.
Personal growth from learning a second language has its own unique subset of benefits. Immersing yourself in another culture changes your outlook on the world. You begin to understand that people in different cultures express themselves in different ways.
I have a distinct memory in Vienna, Austria that demonstrates this idea well. I was in a shop and accidently bumped into an older woman. I said “Entschuldigung” or “excuse me” me if you were to translate it literally from German to English. As a response the woman said “nicht so schlecht” in German, or “not so bad” in English. This struck me as being very direct.
An American person would give a more passive response, maybe something along the lines of “it’s okay” or “you’re okay”, what’s specifically said is going to depend on where that person is from in the United States.
This leads me to the next benefit, one that I acknowledged after learning a third language. You begin to notice not only how people are different but also how they are similar.
After learning Portuguese, I began acknowledging that there are common personality types across different cultures. This forced me to look at a person as more of a human being rather than a German or Brazilian.
For example, it’s been a general observation of mine that Germans are generally more introverted and Brazilians generally more extroverted but that doesn’t mean that extroverted German people and introverted Brazilian people don’t exist.
The polyglot Luca Lampariello often gives a great metaphor to describe the relationship between personality and speaking a foreign language. If you were to take a prism and shine a light through it, the prism itself is your personality and all of the different colors that are created by the light going through the prism are languages.
Languages are a way to project your personality. By learning a language, you can get to know yourself from a new context.
Now that the benefits of learning a second language are clear, it’s important to point out some caveats around achieving personal growth through learning a language.
You can learn and practice a foreign language at home in your home country with the power of the internet, without a doubt.
However, if you want to maximize your personal growth from learning a foreign language, it’s necessary to spend time in a country where that language is spoken.
This kind of immersion will most importantly get you out of your comfort zone, which is important for personal growth in general, but also puts you in a more vulnerable position that forces you to connect with new people in a more personal way in your daily life.
This isn’t an experience that you can have through Skype.
For instance, when you’re living in a foreign country that has a native language other than your own, even going to the grocery is more laborious than it typically is, or at least initially.
When you’re at the grocery store, not only do you need to learn vocabulary for food items, but also their ingredients or other relevant words on the packaging. You may have a question about where an item is located or the price of one.
Many of you are probably thinking that you can just use Google translate.
Despite the fact that Google translate has become much more intelligent since I took Spanish in high school ten years ago, it’s still not something I would choose to rely on in a critical situation.
During my unfortunate situation in a São Paulo airport two years ago, there was a moment where someone used a translator on an app to give me instructions on how to find the bus station at the airport.
The instructions were subpar and only helped to generally point me in the right direction.
I find that the first translation of a single word on Google translate is often not ideal.
Ideally, you want to use an online dictionary that provides examples of usage for individual translations. Without context it’s difficult to know if you’re using the appropriate translation for sure. In the end, focusing more on the situation at hand and less on using technology (I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use technology to study in general, there are a lot of great online tools and resources) you’ll find yourself trusting and relying more on people from a different culture and you’ll learn more about their language in the process.