By Jenny Han Simon
One of the biggest incentives you’ll find on the internet to study a foreign language is the potential salary bump many jobs and industries will offer to someone who is bilingual or even trilingual. However, a monetary bonus is only one potential benefit of studying a foreign language. There are even more valuable incentives, such as increased opportunities for cultural exchange, international experience, and a broader context for your existing academic and professional interests. Here are five reasons why you should consider studying a foreign language.
1. Immerse yourself in a new culture
Going on vacation is an entirely different experience than studying abroad. And even your experience studying or living abroad will vary significantly by how well you’re able to interact with those around you and immerse yourself into the surrounding culture and society. It’s one thing to know some dishes of a culture’s cuisine, but it’s another thing entirely to be able to ask a waiter for their recommendations and order in the native language. Likewise, it’s easy to describe a culture based on what people look like, how they dress, what they eat, what music they listen to, and so on; however, this excludes so many more important nuances of a culture you cannot properly partake in unless you speak the participants’ native language.
Many programs for study or work abroad, such as Fulbright or the Critical Language Scholarship, will ask you how you plan to immerse yourself in the host country. This means more than just studying or working abroad; it means participating in activities and events, asking questions, and sharing your personal experiences with those in the host country while taking in theirs. While language barriers can be overcome through other means, having a conversation in the same language is undoubtedly the best way to communicate effectively.
2. Meet new people
Not only does learning a foriegn language increase your marketability when it comes to finding a job and so on, but it also grows your opportunities and ability to meet and interact with new people. For instance, learning Mandarin will enable you to communicate with one of the largest groups of speakers of a world language—about 1.1 billion people. In addition to communicating with more people, learning a new language increases the likelihood that you will travel abroad, where you can meet new people. Whether you are meeting new people in your home country or abroad, native speakers or non-native speakers, you are interacting with people you may otherwise have never met. This opens numerous doors for educational and professional opportunities, friendships and relationships, and just general life experiences.
3. Broaden your worldview
With approximately 6,500 languages in the world and even more cultures and subcultures, the world is so vast that we’re left with an infinite amount of topics to learn about and study. If your native language is English, you have the advantage of speaking the world’s most widely used lingua franca—a language used between speakers of different native languages for communication—as well as being able to engage with most forms of media and technology available today; however, there is so much information, history, media, and so on that is not available in English. Why limit yourself to things only created in English or translated into English when you could engage with so much more?
So much of what is popular in the English-speaking world, and specifically the United States, comes from or is inspired by other cultures. For example, anime, K-dramas, Latin dances, and some brands of streetwear and other fashion trends come from other countries but are very popular within American culture. Likewise, many things to have come out of the United States are popular abroad, such as rap and jazz music, television sitcoms, and more. You never know what cool things a language will expose you to or where a new interest will take you.
4. Grow your skillset
There are obvious advantages when it comes to learning a foreign language as far as your resume is concerned; however, the process of learning a foreign language will offer more soft skills than you might have anticipated. For instance, learning a language well takes persistence and dedication—two timeless qualities that will never go out of style with employers, grad schools, or admissions committees. It’s one thing to say you possess those qualities; it’s another to have an example that demonstrates them. Learning a foreign language also requires a great deal of patience, innovation, and people skills, just to name a few.
Additionally, the ability to speak a foreign language opens up opportunities for you to participate in the culture in a new way, often picking up new skills in the process Whether it be in the arts, physical pursuits (during my Fulbright ETA in Mongolia, I practiced contortion!), history, literature, or science and tech, there is an immense amount to learn about, to experience, and share with others.
5. Challenge yourself
Learning a foreign language is difficult! Nobody will tell you otherwise. Even if you don’t become fully fluent in your target language, the journey of taking the time and effort to learn that language is meaningful enough for its own sake. While some languages are easier to learn than others (depending on your native language), all language study requires time, patience, and commitment.
While learning a foreign language, or any new skill, will be frustrating at times, challenges are key to our growth. Going through the process of recognizing roadblocks, running into obstacles, and finding ways to overcome these hardships will provide you with experience you can use in the future as well as confidence in yourself and your abilities. You will be surprised by what you can accomplish.
Jenny Han Simon currently lives in New York City. She was a Fulbright ETA in Mongolia (2019-2020) and a participant of the Critical Language Scholarship (2018). She graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2019 with a BA in English and Linguistics.
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