The Benefits of Learning Foreign Languages
I grew up trilingual. At home, my mom taught me Spanish and my father German. I began learning English in 4th grade, took 5 years of French in school and picked up a little Chinese when living in Beijing. I enrolled at the international Jacobs University Bremen in Germany, where 75% of the students come from foreign countries. In my first year we had students from 111 different nations studying on campus. Speaking multiple languages was not common, but the norm. Some students were able to speak 5+ languages fluently. That blew my mind.
I don’t know who I would be today if I had grown up speaking only one language, but from my personal experience the benefits of speaking multiple languages are tremendous. There is no question that I would raise my children to speak more than one and I would advice anybody to do the same.
1. Speaking the local language earns you respect
So true. Last year I traveled with my girlfriend through South America and experienced so many locals that were delighted to tell their story. Speaking somebody else’s language not only removes communication barriers, but also makes you less of a stranger to them. Speaking another person’s language is a strong form of respect. It tells others that you are interested in who they are as a culture – something most people are really proud of. It removes those barriers that you sometimes feel as a tourist – of “us” and “them”. Just knowing “thank you” and “please” will get you much further. Such effort is always very appreciated.
2. You learn much more about other cultures
We learned so much about cultures through real stories from real people. A Bolivian miner told us very openly about the terrible working conditions inside the Potisi mines. A jungle villager in Rurrenabaque told us how his village had to go from hunting to tourism because their living area was official proclaimed a national park in which hunting is illegal. No film documentary or news article can communicate the nuances of such stories as they are being told to you in person – in their language.
3. Learn about yourself through another language
You might notice that when you speak another language your gestures, your general behavior and eventually your thinking patterns change. You start noticing how you become a slightly different person and that allows you to reflect upon your original self. Where there was only one way of saying things, now there are two. Maybe you even learn a word that expresses a meaning that has no equivalent in your original language – like the Japanese concept of “amae” (the feeling of pleasurable dependence on another people) or the German word “Fernweh” (longing to travel).
I learned that much of the way I think is inherently dependent on the words and their meaning that my language has to offer. It has allowed me to expand on my ability to express my thoughts in finer detail.
4. Many more opportunities to work abroad
And finally, languages are often a must if you want to work abroad. There are so many companies operating inter-nationally and which are struggling with finding talented people. But all the talent in the world is not enough if you are unable to speak with the customer on site. Although English is the global business language, not everybody speaks it. And even if they do, being able to speak their language communicates respect and trust and simply makes business easier.