Beyond the obvious reasons: The benefits of learning a language

With English being the most widely used language in the world, why should learning a new language be so rewarding?

When I grew up in Germany, I started to learn English at the age of ten and a second foreign language of my choice (French) around the age of twelve, just like everyone else, and I studied these languages until I finished school aged 19. By that time I was fairly well equipped to get by in two foreign languages. Today pupils in Germany are learning English already in primary school, in a playful way. They will be even better prepared to communicate in this language in the future.

Here in the UK, I often hear from people that they have learnt another language for a couple of years in school and then forgotten all about it. What many are left with is the odd phrase that they can hurl at foreigners in the most charming way when they meet them, but that’s about it. On the face of it, this is perfectly understandable: unlike German, English is the most widely used language in the world, and even in remote areas you can find people who are able to speak it. So, if everyone is speaking English, why should you learn another language?

This is where it gets interesting, because if you dig a little deeper, the benefits of learning a language go far beyond being able to buy a baguette on holiday.

One advantage of learning another language becomes obvious when you travel. For even though you can get by speaking English in most places (or, if that fails, with pointing and smiling), it is much easier to understand another culture when you are able to speak the language to some extent. Learning about other cultures in turn helps you to understand more about your own culture, as it challenges how you see the world around you. Travelling becomes more enriching and exciting, beyond the sightseeing and foreign foods. You may even make friends along the way you would have never talked to otherwise.

Knowing another language makes you more employable, both at home and abroad. I never had any trouble getting a job when I moved to the UK, not even in the early years of the recession – because of my language skills. Employers were happy to train me on the actual job because they needed me for my German language skills. Simple as that. Even though English is the common language for business: if you want to sell a product or a service in a different country, or if you are a global company with employees worldwide, you still need to be able to communicate with your customers and colleagues in their native tongue in order to succeed.

Studies have shown that learning and practising another language is also good for your mental health, that it keeps Alzheimer’s at bay and that it makes you smarter because it exercises the brain and improves the memory and in doing so helps you to think on your feet. (No wonder translators and interpreters are such a healthy and clever bunch.) You can read more on that subject here and here.

The greatest benefit of learning a language goes even beyond these practical reasons. There is a saying: Learn a new language and you become a new person. I found this to be very true. If you learn a new language, you not only learn grammar and vocabulary but also a whole new way of thinking and perceiving the world. This may be subtle if you are learning a language of a culture that is close to your own, but it is fascinating nonetheless. It must be even more exciting if you immerse yourself in a language of a very different culture. I certainly think and feel in a different way in English than I do in German. To realise this, you need to know the language really well and become part of its culture. It may sound like hard work, but if you have mastered the basics of a language, it becomes a lot easier to enhance your knowledge if you are living in the country where it is spoken and where you are surrounded by it every day.

People have different reasons to learn another language, be it out of necessity, a passion for a country and its people, to further their career or just out of curiosity. It doesn’t matter what the original impulse to learn a language is: the rewards will be on many levels.