A person who speaks many languages is a polyglot.
A person who speaks two languages is bilingual.
And a person who speaks one language?
You guessed it, a native English speaker.
As native English speakers we have the confounding situation where everyone else speaks, wants to speak or has to speak our language so our need to learn other languages is anywhere from very low to non existent.
I am embarrassed to say that despite being an English teacher, I couldn’t have a basic conversation in another language until this year. Now I can and it has reiterated the benefits gained through this process.
Here are six great reasons why us English speakers should be investing more time in learning other languages.
1. You will decrease judgement and increase empathy
Have you heard the phrase “They can’t even speak English very well” slung about before?
It often comes up when people in English speaking countries are talking about immigrants, refugees or just foreigners in general. As if people from other countries should automatically speak English because they are abroad.
It also often comes from those who, non-surprisingly, have no second language skills themselves.
Non-English speaking people assume that they will have to speak English to all English speakers yet at the same time they can be criticised if their English skills aren’t good enough.
Learning another language requires an incredible amount of time, energy, patience and practice to be conversationally fluent and if you go through this process, you will be less judgemental of those attempting to speak your language.
You will gain empathy for the effort people undertake to speak English well and be more discouraging of hypocritical comments about other’s language abilities.
2. You will gain humility
Learning another language takes us out of our ego. When you first learn a language you have the vocabulary of a toddler. You will walk around looking like an adult but speaking like a child.
Gone is the basis for your intelligence, your jokes and your witty comments and as such, much of the personality we pride ourselves on. You will learn humility because you will make mistakes, there is no way around that.
You will learn patience because you will continue to make the same mistakes again and again and you may find a refreshing change comes when you relinquish power and control through language. Other senses become enhanced, you learn to listen rather than speak, observe rather than participate and learn rather than instruct. Humility can then grow.
3. You will gain an incredible wealth of cultural information and knowledge
So much of culture is embedded in language (and vice versa) and you can’t even begin to say you understand a culture if you have been to the country but not spoken its language to its people.
The way people joke, the expressions they use, the history and the syntax of a language are all access points to vast libraries of cultural knowledge, providing great insight into how and why people think like they do.
But as much as highlighting differences, bridging language gaps allows us to see how similar we all are. We have the same desires for respect, for love, for security, for meaning and for family. Once you can speak to someone in their language, this becomes apparent.
4. You will improve your mental thinking processes
Yes multilingualism is great for the brain. Refer to my article here for a more detailed overview of just how good it is for our brains. Multilingualism improves memory retention and by activating different neural networks, it delays the onset of age related disease like dementia.
5. You will extend your friendship and acquaintance circle
Learning another language opens you to a whole new subset of people outside your normal social circle and you will see that your way of thinking is merely one tiny slice of existence. Having friends from different cultural and language backgrounds is a great way to build resilience, tolerance and understanding in broader social networks plus it is fun and interesting to have people to talk to whose life experiences differ markedly from yours.
6. You will feel a great sense of achievement
An added challenge of learning another language is that so many people around the world are already using English. This however, makes the challenge and the reward greater for people are generally impressed when native English speakers can speak other languages as they know it comes from a desire and tenacity to learn, not only necessity.