And, equally concerning, it seems that the US is falling behind its international neighbors, with the majority of research finding that at least half of the world’s population is bilingual.
From helping us to secure a better-paying job to opening up new travel opportunities, there are many key advantages to becoming fluent in a foreign language, and here we present 10 of them.
1. It can boost your career prospects
Being able to speak more than one language will make you a hugely attractive candidate when you’re taking the next step in your career. In an increasingly globalized business landscape, more companies than ever are trading overseas and dealing with international clients.
In fact, research from Salary.com has found that those who speak a foreign language typically earn between 5% and 20% more than monolingual individuals.
If you’re uncertain which language will be of most benefit to your career, it’s worth considering which field you’d like to enter and which countries you’d like to work in. With 898 million speakers, Mandarin Chinese is currently the most widely spoken language in the world. And, as China is often at the centre of innovation, becoming fluent in this language could be an attractive option for those in the tech industry. Likewise, Spanish has more than 460 million speakers worldwide, which means its speakers are often sought after by employers such as the United Nations.
2. Improved memory
Have you ever been told to get moving when taking part in an exercise class? Well, the same is true for your mental agility and memory. If you want to gain fluency in another language, you’ll need to commit a whole set of new vocabulary and grammatical rules to memory. Once you’ve honed your memory skills to learn a new language, you may find that your memory improves in other areas of life.
When investigating the link between language skills and memory, researchers in Sweden discovered that students who had taken part in a 10-month language course showed a 28% improvement in memory when it came to recalling the names of people they had just met.
Who knows? You may become a champion quizzer or at least find you’re less likely to forget your partner’s next birthday.
3. You can travel off the beaten path
When we’re planning a trip abroad, one of the first questions many of us ask is, “Do they speak the language over there?” While it might sound xenophobic, it’s certainly understandable. Being able to communicate with residents should you get lost or become ill can prove invaluable in the event of an emergency abroad.
On the downside, however, only travelling to countries whose locals speak the same language as you could significantly limit your holiday options. Learning a foreign language could open up a new world of exotic locations and take you to destinations not on tour guide routes or packed with English-speaking tourists.
4. Learning new skills improves mental health
With people all over the world becoming increasingly aware of the importance of mental health, it’s widely accepted in psychological circles that developing new skills (such as learning a foreign language) is beneficial for your psychological wellbeing.
When you learn a new skill, you experience an increase in self-confidence and feel a sense of satisfaction every time you achieve a goal. If you’re struggling with difficult events in your life, having a class to attend or homework to complete each week could prove a useful distraction or add a sense of purpose to your day.
5. It introduces you to new people
In addition to boosting your travel horizons, speaking more than one language provides a unique opportunity to meet people you would have otherwise never encountered in your day-to-day life.
In an increasingly digital age, being able to understand another language could allow you to communicate with people from other cultures over social media or through other online channels. In this scenario, speaking another language could help us all move beyond our social media bubbles in which we only communicate with those who share our own cultural backgrounds.
One thing is sure: you’re much more likely to build a meaningful relationship with any new people you meet if you put in the time and effort to learn about their culture and language.
6. Being multilingual improves creativity
Developing foreign language skills encourages you to experiment with new ways of thinking and introduces you to a wealth of new vocabulary. It’s therefore unsurprising that those who are multilingual also exhibit higher levels of creativity. It makes sense: when we’re learning, and speaking, a language other than our own, we’re tapping into areas of our brains that remain unused when we’re relying on our mother tongue.
In fact, research published in the National Academies of Sciences found this phenomenon is likely to be more pronounced for children who learn a new language from a young age. As a result of their linguistic education, they will be better prepared to navigate new concepts and ideas.
7. You could keep your brain healthier for longer
Research suggests that as well as boosting your brainpower and memory in the present, being bilingual can enhance your brainpower later in life.
When investigating the link between brain health and multilingualism, researchers found that those who speak more than one language experience an average 4.5-year delay in the onset of dementia symptoms. It’s interesting to note that this research focused on subjects of all levels of education and in multiple occupations. One possible explanation for this could be that learning a new language increases the number of neural pathways in the brain.
8. It’s easier to learn a third language
Unless you’re a real prodigy, learning a new language isn’t easy. However, there is good news as research from the University of Haifa found that those who are already bilingual have the skills in place to pick up another new language.
The reason for this? The scientists behind the study, which looked at the development of 6th-grade students in Israel, pointed out that many languages reinforce one another, which can act as a foundation for future learning. Furthermore, the process of applying skills from one language to another is a critical cognitive function that works most effectively when started at an early age.
As with any form of education, developing your language skills can be a lifelong process.
9. Being bilingual can improve your English
While your primary goal in learning a foreign language is probably to develop a new skill, being bilingual could also help you enhance an existing skill: your spoken and written English.
Becoming familiar with the syntax, verb forms, and tenses of another language could also force you to consider these aspects of your own language, which could lead you to improve your grammar skills.
Think about it: do you really understand the underlying grammatical rules of your mother tongue or do you sense these things intuitively as a result of growing up among native speakers? The problem with learning a language from our parents and others in our community is that we often pick up bad habits and neglect to learn some of the fundamentals of our own language.
10. You could even find love
If the lure of a better career, improved memory, or adventurous foreign travel isn’t enough to tempt you to learn a new language, perhaps you’ll be persuaded by matters of the heart.
According to statistics from the Pew Research Institute, one in six newlyweds in the US is married to someone of a different race or ethnicity. If your new love is from another country or culture, what better way could there be to show your commitment than to learn their language? And besides, there are few things as sexy as an exotic accent.
While the benefits of learning a new language are clear, many of us (wrongly) imagine that becoming bilingual isn’t for the average man or woman on the street. Thanks to the rise of online learning, however, gaining proficiency in another language is easier than ever. In fact, many learners can fit their education around work and family commitments. What’s more, many of these tools and resources now make adult education more affordable and accessible than it would have been only 5 years ago.
So, what’s stopping you from expanding your horizons? Nothing. As the French say, bonne chance, or if traditional Chinese tickles your fancy, 祝你好運.