Learn a new language
I’m a fairly outgoing type of person. This means I have a lot of conversations with strangers and soon to be friends. The other day while not standing on the beach and not standing on the boardwalk watching the ocean (everything was closed because of Covid-19) I got to talking with the guy six feet away from me.
It was the usual banter which degraded into the, “So what do you do?” Actually, this question is kind of important now that so many people are out of work and some people can work from home. After I explained that I teach people how to learn languages this unfortunate fellow asked me, “Why should I learn another language?”
This was unfortunate for two reasons
- It’s a little sad that someone does not want to open their mind to another world. That they don’t understand that having another language is like having another life
- He was about to hear me talk unabated for the next half hour (not really)
Why learn a language?
Ha! Sit down, this may take a while . . .
There are a lot of reasons to learn another language
- It’s good for your health
- It’s good for your brain
- It makes travel easier
- You get a lot more out of traveling
- You make more friends (even if you are not traveling)
- You appear more professional, educated, and savvy
The health benefits of learning a language
Let’s start with your health and specifically your brain health.
A second language improves cognitive functionality (translation: makes you smarter) by challenging your brain to recognize and negotiate meaning and communicate differently. This results in higher scores on standardized tests in math, reading, and vocabulary. Clearly, if you are in school it is worth the time and effort to learn a new language. If you are not in school and not taking tests anymore you still get the benefit of being smarter.
Being bilingual improves memory. People who learn a second language are better at remembering lists, names, and directions according to a study from the University of New Brunswick. This is not surprising since learning a language involves memorizing vocabulary and different grammar structures.
People who are bilingual or multilingual are better observers. Multilingual people are better at focusing and they are better at identifying false or misleading information according to a study at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain.
A University of Chicago study reported by Business Insider showed that those who spoke more than one language made better decisions and had more confidence.
And for those of us that are a bit older, speaking more than one language will slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. To be clear, bilingualism won’t stop or cure Alzheimer’s. Learning a new language will delay it if you are going to get it. It will delay it a lot. On average language learning will keep you lucid 4.5 years longer than if you were not bilingual.
This is a pretty impressive list of benefits
- be smarter
- improve your memory
- improve your observation skills
- have better focus
- identify false and misleading information
- make better decisions
- have more confidence
- slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease
Learn a second language!
Why learning a foreign language for travel matters
All those health benefits and that’s if you don’t even travel. If you travel the list gets longer.
Trying to speak someone else’s language goes a long way
Traveling to a country and expecting everyone to speak your language doesn’t always go over very well. You don’t have to speak fluently but knowing a few keywords and phrases goes a long way in showing that you took the time and made an effort to try and learn their language.
It’s like being invited over for dinner to a new friend’s home and not bringing a small gift as a token of appreciation. Don’t be that guy. Bring the bottle of wine or flowers – learn the basics of the language. You’re saying, “I’m a guest in your country, thanks for having me over.”
Breaks the ice
Your imperfect speaking will inevitably bring about funny situations and there’s no better way to make a positive impression or make friends than with a good laugh at your expense.
I always approach the waiter or salesperson in their language. Because of this, I get a lot of little extras at restaurants and markets and more attention at stores and shops. Usually, they speak a little English, I speak a little of their language and now we’ve made a connection trying to communicate with our imperfect words. It’s fun, there is always a lot of laughing, a lot of mistakes, and a lot of good feelings.
Speaking a little of the language opens up the opportunity to meet people. Something as simple as, “Excuse me, where is ______ ?”, often leads to a longer friendly interaction.
I’ve had people spend an hour with me to make sure I got what I needed. In Beijing, the subway attendant left her work station to walk me to the hotel. She waited to make sure I could get a room and got checked in before going back to work.
In Tiananmen Square, my son and I asked a police officer for directions in my terrible version of Chinese. We’ve been to his house twice and are still in contact.
In Marseille in my stuttering French, I asked a guy in the gym where the nearest bank was. He not only took me to the bank but spent half an hour with me helping translate the transaction. We went for pints afterward.
I’ve walked on top of the old city wall in Istanbul. It’s strictly off-limits to everyone. I happened on a group of workers reinforcing a section of the wall. I said ‘hi’ in Turkish, they invited up.
I don’t think any of this would have happened If I didn’t speak some of the language. Just enough to ask the question and have a little conversation. And it’s these types of interactions that make travel special.
Makes traveling easier
Traveling is fun but it’s not all fun. There are times of frustration and anxiety when you travel and speaking the language reduces a lot of those frustrating and anxious times. Getting into a taxi and confidently stating where you want to go in their language makes it far less likely you will get taken advantage of.
I lived in Bangkok for two years. When I first arrived in I did not speak the language (it’s a really hard language for me) and I often ended up far from my destination because I could not communicate. Frustrating.
Getting simple directions to the train station after a 12-hour flight when you are tired and disoriented can be a simple question or a long frustrating affair. Language makes a difference.
It’s the same with ordering at restaurants and cafes. Being able to read what’s on the menu, order it, and get what you think you are ordering can be frustrating and anxious or easy and pleasant.
Knowing the language just makes traveling more enjoyable. The fewer frustrations you have the more fun you have. The more contact you make with locals the more fun you have.
When you can speak a little of their language and it’s clear you are a foreigner, many people really want to help you. They will help you speak better and get what or to where you want. Best of all, locals love to let you in on local secrets, where to find the best food and drinks, and places not overrun with tourists.
Just learn a language already
Do you brain a favor and learn a language. You will be smarter, your memory and focus will improve, you will make better decisions and be more confident. And don’t forget the benefit of delaying Alzheimer’s. Walk into the bedroom and actually remember what you came in for!
Speaking the language, even a little bit, opens up opportunities. It separates you from the hoard of tourists shuffling through to someone special, worth the time to interact with, and share the country and culture.