5 reasons to learn a foreign language

At school, I chose French as an A-Level option.  I took part in twinning activities and I stayed with a French family for a week.  At university, I completed the Student Associates Scheme and I studied abroad for a semester as part of the Erasmus Program.  Thanks to this, I was an Erasmus Ambassador for the British Council.  In 2014 I moved to China in order to teach English and to discover another culture and language.  I now have a Chinese wife and I practise my languages every day.  I love language learning and it has opened up many doors for me.

In this article I give five reasons to consider learning a foreign language.

1. Job prospects

Many jobs require language skills.  Perhaps you want to be a professional translator, work for the EU in Brussels, or even do missionary work overseas.  For many more jobs, language skills are not essential but are nevertheless very useful.  Perhaps you want to expand your business, teach English abroad or even help in a multicultural school.  But most jobs do not require language skills and most employers are unlikely to care that much about your language learning hobby.

You should consider learning a foreign language for the direct benefits (e.g. language skills and cross-cultural insights) but also for the indirect benefits.  Remember that more and more young people are graduating from university with good degrees.  Think about what makes you a special job candidate.  Language learning takes hard-work, patience as well as a willingness to experience new things and meet new challenges.  Fluent foreign language users are also skilled communicators with potentially valuable cultural know-how.

2. Travel

International travel is becoming easier and more affordable.  There are now more airports offering more flight options.  And there are cheap youth hostels dotted all over the globe (not to mention websites like Couchsurfing).  Moreover, English is a global language and so many people in popular tourist destinations will probably speak a little bit of your language.  All in all, it is perfectly possible to have a great time abroad just speaking English.

Foreign language skills may not be essential for your holiday, but they will definitely add to your experience.  First, you will feel more confident and independent.  It takes some of the stress away if you know you’ll be able to order food or ask for basic directions.  Second, you will have access to foreign written material, including signposts and newspapers.  Third, you can engage the locals in basic conversation.  The worst case scenario here is that you endear yourself to the locals by trying and failing miserably to speak their language.  And the best case scenario is that you can enjoy a meaningful conversation.

3. Access to culture

There is nothing stopping you using English to appreciate the cultural offerings of another country.  It is possible to watch a foreign movie with English subtitles.  It is also possible to appreciate the melody of a foreign song without understanding the lyrics.  Moreover, you can read English translations of novels and poems.  But English subtitles are distracting; it’s annoying when you can’t understand song lyrics.  And English translations of literature often sound stilted.

Learning a language is not just about memorizing words and grammatical rules.  It opens the door to a whole world of culture that you can access directly.  This appreciation of foreign culture creates a positive-feedback loop.  The more proficient you are in your foreign language, the more access you will have to music, film and literature.  And the more access you have to cultural offerings, the more motivated you will be to continue learning.  I even suggest that you start learning about the country (e.g. its history) before you even start to learn the language

4. Social life

You may spend a lot of time on Facebook or Twitter.  Put that online time to better use by signing up to a language learning website or smartphone application.  These are fun and stress-free alternatives to formal language learning methods.  There are even social networking sites that are marketed exclusively at language learners.  Just specify your native language as well as the language you would like to learn (or practise) and the website will suggest some appropriate language buddies for you.

So you can learn a language from behind your laptop or smartphone screen and socialize at the same time.  There are so many language learners (and language teachers) on YouTube and other sites.  By connecting with this community, you will have opportunities for cultural exchange and for establishing real connections.  And that’s to say nothing of all of the offline interactions that will be possible if you speak a foreign language.  Think how much more you will appreciate your holiday if you make a friend (or even meet a future life-partner) abroad.

5. Intellectual challenge

Learning a language is great for your job prospects, your travel experience, your cultural awareness and your social life.  And there is yet another benefit.  It is a great work-out for your brain that will (hopefully) keep you sharp well into your old age.  (In this regard, language learning is similar to other hobbies, such as completing a daily Sudoku puzzle or practising a musical instrument.)  You may lose motivation from time to time while you learn a foreign language.  But you will never get truly bored, because there is always something new to learn as well as a new way to learn it.

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