Why learning a second language will make you better at life (and your job.)

by Holly Boyer, Senior Editor, INALJ Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia 

Why learning a second language will make you better at life (and your job.)

holly boyerFull disclosure: I am a language nerd. I started studying French in 6th grade and am now fluentish in Spanish and Portuguese. I have a BA in Spanish. And I strongly believe, regardless of any evidence that does/does not exist, that learning a second (or more) language is one of the most important things you can do to improve your life.

1. Let’s just get this one out of the way. Knowing a second language improves career opportunities. So you ever get frustrated at those announcements for your dream job only to get to the required skills and see that you have to know Spanish? I love those, because I know that there’s at least one requirement in that job ad that I actually meet. And knowing a second language will help even the jobs that don’t list a language as a requirement. You never know when it might come in handy to have an employee who speaks Hindi.

2. You can make more money. Depending on the language, you can make bank. Government organizations and their contractors need people who have language skills, and if you speak one or more critical languages, you can make more money. The CIA, for example, offers language bonuses (and hires librarians.)

3. It improves your English language skills. As you learn the mechanics of a foreign language (grammar, sentence structure, conjugations), you beef up your knowledge of English language mechanics. This improvement will protect you from the internet grammar police and make your

4. It makes you more culturally aware and sensitive to the challenges of English language learners. Imagine you work in a public library and a limited English speaker comes up to the reference desk to ask you question. With your experience trying to learn a second language, you are more adept at serving that person even though the two of you have trouble communicating. You know exactly where they’re coming from. Also, there is a whole body of study that shows that second language learners are more aware and tolerant of cultural differences.

5. Your brain gets stronger. There have been numerous studies on bilinguals how they are better at multi-tasking, decision-making, perceptiveness, and have better memories. They even have greater protection from some forms of dementia, and may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms. Adult second language learners also reap these benefits, although the extent to which is not exactly clear. In his article, “The Benefits of Failing at French”, William Alexander talks about how even though he learn much French in the year he studied it, his scores on a cognitive assessment taken before and after his failed French experiment improved drastically. He could actually remember the items on his shopping list! Just think, studying that second language might help you remember why you walked into the staff room.

This sounds awesome, right? So, now what? First, try your public library. There are great online tools, like Mango Languages, that may be available. Also, some libraries offer discussion groups in certain languages. Or, you can try an in person class through a continuing education program at your local community college. If you’re truly brave, you could join the Peace Corps or do mission work and immerse yourself in the culture and language of a new country. And if you’re independently wealthy, you could move to a place where the language you want to learn is spoken (and I’m extremely jealous of you.)

In my personal experience, the hardest part about learning a new language is getting over the embarrassment and fear of just opening your mouth and talking. You’re going to say it wrong. A lot. Sometimes you’ll say something that you think means one thing but actually means something else (and once you find out what it really means you’re going to be mortified.) But that’s ok. No one instantly learns a language; even babies need a few years before they can grasp the intricacies of grammar and sentence structure.

Go for it. Your brain will thank you later.

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