My grandpa Angleo was born in the United States to two Italian immigrants. His father left his hometown in the province of Bergamo as a young man to build a better life for himself in the New World. Despite his rich linguistic and cultural background, my great-grandfather Giacamo never spoke to his children in his native tongue. In fact, he never spoke Italian at all. He insisted that, in the United States, you speak English—the use of Italian would only hinder integration into the country.
Today, the only Italian my grandpa knows are the lyrics of some of the traditional Italian songs he sings. He is proud of his origins which he celebrates through holidays, food, and hobbies, though he has mentioned wishing he was able to speak the language in order to create deeper connections with his extended Italian family.
But my great-grandfather Giacamo was not alone in his belief. At that time, many immigrants renounced their roots to embrace a new identity in their new land. The idea that two languages would confuse children or hinder their cognitive ability also became an accepted theory. This misconception settled into society and impacted the way we view foreign languages today.
However, studies have shown that learning a language is anything but detrimental to an individual’s cognitive wellbeing and social assimilation. Fortunately, perspectives are changing as we learn about the many benefits of being bilingual or multilingual. I can say for a fact that studying a foreign language has changed my life—and perhaps in more ways than I am even aware. So, here are just ten of the reasons why studying foreign languages today is more important than ever.
As we learn a new language, we begin to have greater insight into the customs, values, and history of the people who speak it. For example, the Spanish word sobremesa (which, literally translated, means “over the table”) is indicative of the culture in Spanish-speaking countries of relaxing and chatting with friends and family over coffee and dessert after a long meal. What does this say about Spanish-speaking culture? What can we learn from it? How can we benefit from knowing about this way of living? By learning new words and understanding their meaning, we have a broader perspective on the world around us. We understand that not everything is the way we see it, and by changing the way we look at things, we can break down barriers, eliminate stereotypes, and promote greater empathy for people from different backgrounds. When we learn a new language and understand its culture, we can further understand that we are much more alike than we think; the concept of the “other” no longer exists, because we have placed ourselves in someone else’s shoes and can understand their point of view. This creates inclusive communities and fosters greater tolerance overall.
No one can master a language in a day. It takes a lot of time—and a ton of patience. When we are in the process of learning a language, we might struggle to find a particular word or formulate a sentence the way we wish. By experiencing this on our end, we learn to be more patient with others when it happens to them. Furthermore, as we learn to adopt new words into our vocabulary, we begin to truly understand the weight and meaning of them. This helps us become more aware of the things we say and how we say them, which helps us become better communicators overall.
As our world is becoming more globalized, companies are on the lookout for people who are able to communicate with foreign markets or a foreign public. Knowing another language gives us a competitive advantage in our career, and studies have even shown that it can increase one’s salary by up to 20%. People who speak at least one foreign language are more likely to be recruited by international companies and are more likely to take on leadership positions.
When we set about learning a foreign language, we reflect on the nature of language itself (this is called metalinguistic awareness) because we must understand the language’s grammatical structure as well as its syntax and semantics. This forces us to think deeply about our native tongue and how we use it. For example, let’s say English is our first language and we are trying to figure out verb conjugations in Italian. We might have to ask ourselves the function of the present perfect and how this differs from the simple past in order to comprehend the nuances between Italian’s passato remoto and passato prossimo. I can say with complete confidence that my command of English has improved greatly since I have begun to explore foreign languages—and this has helped me communicate better in my native tongue as well as the other languages I speak.
Have you ever gotten lost in a foreign country? Then you know how helpful it would have been if you spoke the language. When we know a foreign tongue, we have no trouble navigating around a new place because we can read signs, understand announcements, and are able to ask people for directions. It makes the entire experience a lot less stressful (and therefore a lot more fun). And no one knows their city better than a local, so exchanging with the residents can greatly enrich the traveling experience. Who else will be able to tell you about the coolest bar in town, or the best place to get a local specialty?
Learning a new language has been shown to have positive effects on brain function. Not only does it improve memory, but it creates more connections in the brain that can help everything from multitasking to math skills. Studies have even shown that bilingualism can delay the onset of dementia: individuals who speak at least one language gain four to six more years over monolinguals before symptoms of the illness begin to show. Some theories have even gone as far to postulate that learning another language can fight off neurological diseases altogether.
When we speak someone's language, we are not only able to understand their words, but also their cultural references, humor, and subtle nuances of meaning that might not come across in translation. This deeper level of communication can help build trust and rapport with people from other cultures while also facilitating more meaningful and authentic relationships. Overall, learning a language allows us to connect with people on a deeper level since we can have a shared understanding of their cultural norms and values.
As a translator myself, I understand the skill and expertise required to relay a work in another language. There is an incredible amount of thought put into every word, every meaning. That said, there are some nuances that can be lost in translation—and some words simply cannot be translated at all. When we know a foreign language, we can truly appreciate and understand the books we read, the movies we see, and the art we contemplate. As much as I love its adaptation into English-speaking literature and film, there is nothing better than reading the original of Alexandre Dumas’ Le Comte de Monte Cristo.
Learning a new language requires us to navigate complex linguistic systems (like grammar and vocabulary) in order to communicate effectively. This forces us to think creatively because we need to construct meaning from what we have read or heard. The act of interpretation in and of itself is explored as we question whether we have fully understood a concept or if it can be looked at a different way. Consequently, our minds become more flexible, which broadens our analytical thinking and problem-solving skills. These abilities can be applied to a multitude of other areas in our life and help us become more aware of the world around us.
Learning a new language requires an incredible amount of dedication and effort. Sometimes, we might want to throw the towel in because we do not progress at the speed we’d like to. And we can often find ourselves embarrassed because we have said the wrong thing or mispronounced a word. But it is important to remember that no growth is without mistakes. We need to make errors in order to improve. And when we finally reach one of our language-learning goals, it feels amazing! All that embarrassment we might have felt before is totally worth it, and we gain so much confidence after seeing how far we have come. In the end, we use our triumphs as motivation to go further and reach other aims.
Of course, there are many other advantages to learning a language, and we will continue to learn about the usefulness of being bilingual or multilingual. Have you experienced any of these benefits yourself or know of other upsides to speaking a foreign tongue? Please share with us your insights in the comments below!
Natalie Worden is a French to English translator, copywriter, and content strategist for Tomedes. She holds a master’s degree in professional and literary translations from the Institut de Traducteurs, d'Interprètes et de Relations Internationales at the University of Strasbourg. She likes reading and ice cream.
Post your Comment