Why learn a second language? The greatest benefits of bilingualism

Emily Gorsky -

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to communicate in a language other than your own? 

For many of us, the desire to speak a foreign language is overshadowed by the idea that it’s a long journey or that there’s no practical reason to learn. However, research has shown that being bilingual has many advantages in today’s connected world. 

Whether you want to give yourself a competitive advantage at work, build closer connections with people or learn more about the world around you, speaking multiple languages has the potential to break the barriers to communication and allow us to understand each other on a more personal level. Read on to find out more about the benefits of learning a foreign language.

Career benefits to learning a second language

If you’re looking to get ahead in your career, learning a second language can give you a strong competitive advantage in the workplace. As the world becomes more connected, the importance of communication between countries is crucial to the success of global organizations.

No matter what industry you’re in, the career and job benefits of learning a second language are numerous, and you will find that employers want to hire individuals who can speak more than one language.

You’ll open up more career opportunities

Fluency in a foreign language can make you more employable in certain industries. Many employers look favourably upon applicants who have learnt to speak more than one language, because it shows a strong work ethic and willingness to overcome a challenge.

Businesses with customers around the world need someone who is not only capable of communicating in another language but is also culturally aware and open-minded.

Being fluent in languages such as English, Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin, Korean or Pashto is also highly sought after if you are looking to work for the military or government. There are more opportunities available to multilingual individuals, such as jobs in translation and interpretation. According to the U.S Department of Labor, translators and interpreters are expected to be one of the 15 fastest growing occupations in the United States.

You’ll improve your competitiveness in the job market

Today, you’ll find more employers are seeking people who can speak multiple languages in fields such as customer service, hospitality, government, military, information technology and administration. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Phoenix Research Institute suggests that there aren’t enough people speaking languages like Spanish and Mandarin Chinese to meet the growing demand in the market.

Just last year, the New American Economy (NAE) released a report on the growing demand for bilingual individuals in major industries in the United States. According to the report employers are seeking more bilingual workers in industries that require a high degree of social interaction. Bank of America, H&R Block, and Humana were listed among the top firms seeking bilingual employees.

The report also states that in 2010, there were around 240,000 job postings requesting bilingual workers and by 2015, that figure had increased to approximately 630,000.

You’ll be more creative

While creativity can be a difficult thing to accurately measure, researchers have attempted to quantify and measure creative ability in a number of ways. One of the tools that is most widely used to understand creativity is a test known as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). The TTCT was first introduced in 1962 by Ellis Paul Torrance and measures an individual’s capacity for what’s referred to as “divergent thinking” in four key areas: fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration.

Divergent thinking is essentially how well and how quickly your mind can problem-solve. A study conducted by the University of Mashhad compared a group of bilinguals on the TTCT with their monolingual counterparts. The results clearly showed that bilinguals performed better than the monolinguals in each of the TTCT’s four measures.

Some reasons for this could be that bilinguals are often faced with situations where they must consider multiple perspectives, which can have an effect on problem solving ability. Bilinguals are also better at handling distractions, holding information and multi-tasking which allows them to focus on coming up with creative solutions.

Social benefits of learning a language

If you are limited to speaking only one language, it’s difficult to share your thoughts with someone who doesn’t speak the same language. Learning a new language brings you closer to understanding new ways of thinking and opens up a whole world of close friendships and even romantic relationships.

You’ll open up more social and cultural opportunities

Language allows you to express your thoughts to other people, but what if there are no words to express what you’re thinking and feeling? Understanding a second language can allow you to express something you may not be able to with only one language.

Because language is linked to culture, you will find that by speaking more than one language you have a better understanding of and appreciation for other cultures. This allows you to establish stronger bonds with people from other cultural backgrounds.

Nelson Mandela once said, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Communicating in someone’s native tongue is not only a great way to show respect, but it also helps you develop a deeper personal connection that goes beyond just being understood. It also puts people at ease, and they will feel more comfortable opening up to you.

You’ll have a much easier time when you travel

If you travel often, knowing multiple foreign languages is certainly beneficial. In addition to being able to read and understand the signs, maps and menus, you can also communicate with the locals in their native tongue, which makes sparking new friendships a lot easier. Not to mention, the challenge of navigating a new country and overcoming its language barriers is hugely rewarding. Imagine working out how to get from point A to B in a new country, without having to resort to using Google Translate—it’s no small feat!

Speaking the local language can also help you have a more authentic experience while you travel, because you don’t have to rely on just your English if you find yourself outside of a major city. It’s also a super immersive way to improve your speech quickly if you’re hoping to become fluent in a shorter period of time.

You’ll become more empathetic towards other ways of seeing the world

Studies have shown that children who are exposed to other languages are more likely to be empathetic and better communicators. When communicating with others, we rely on empathy to determine what people mean rather than what they say.

In one particular study, a group of children aged between 4 to 6, from different linguistic backgrounds were presented with a situation in which they had to consider someone else’s perspective to understand the meaning. The children were given three toy cars—small, medium and large but were in a position where they could observe that the adult could not see the smallest car. The adult would then ask the child to move the smallest car. Since the adult could see only the medium and large cars, the child might assume she is referring to the ‘medium’ car.

Bilingual children were better, on average, than monolingual children at performing this task. That’s because interpreting someone’s words doesn’t just rely on its content, but also in its context. Children in multilingual environments are presented with similar challenges when navigating context and the perspective of others.

According to the study, “early language exposure is essential to developing a formal language system but may not be sufficient for communicating effectively. To understand a speaker’s intention, one must take the speaker’s perspective”.

Benefits of bilingualism on the brain

The cognitive benefits of learning a second language have been widely researched and documented. Something many people may not realise is that learning a new language can strengthen neural pathways and boost your brain’s performance in other areas. Recent research has indicated that bilingual speakers can outperform monolinguals in abilities such as editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important information. These skills make bilinguals better at prioritising and multi-tasking.

Experiments with older bilingual speakers show that the enhanced mental skills of bilingualism may protect them from illnesses such as Alzheimer's and dementia. Even bilingual individuals who show progressive physical signs of Alzheimer’s perform better behaviourally, even if their scans suggest that their symptoms should be much worse. This indicates that being bilingual may help to establish alternate brain networks to compensate for those that become damaged during aging.

At the end of the day, mastering a new language can teach you many important life lessons including how to accept mistakes as part of the learning experience and that it is always better to try than to never experience the satisfaction of overcoming a challenge. 

After all, language and cultural understanding are the keys to connecting both personally and professionally, and bettering yourself as a global citizen of the world.

Discover how we can help you make the connections that open the world to possibilities.