Why Is It Important to Study a Foreign Language?
Whether you love learning language or hate it, there are compelling reasons to put foreign language skills on your list for personal or professional development.
Language skills are practical for your career and have benefits far beyond simple communication. Here's what you need to know to add a foreign language to your development plan today.
1. Improves native language understanding
Studying a second language helps students better understand their own native language. As students learn the grammar, structure, and quirks of a second language, they begin to notice "what they know" about their first language. This helps students command their first language with more skill.
2. Enhances analytical skills
Studying a foreign language may also improve analytical skills. To learn a new language, people engage with multiple cognitive strategies such as problem-solving and abstract concept visualization. This process builds cognitive strategies students can use in other areas.
3. Improves job prospects
A 2019 study suggested that 32% of U.S. employers needed employees with second language communication skills, and one in four employers surveyed lost a business opportunity due to language challenges. Learning a second language can provide job-seekers with a stand-out resume.
4. Can help improve attention span and focus
Some evidence suggests that learning languages improves executive function and attention. Executive function is a set of skills required for everyday behavior—examples of executive functions include memory, flexible thinking, self-control. A literature review found evidence that suggested potential links between attention span, focus, and bilingualism or multilingualism. It might be the case that learning a new language helps to improve many executive functions.
5. Slows cognitive decline
A long-term study on monolingual and bilingual persons discovered that learning a second language seems to prevent cognitive decline in later age. The study began in the 1940s when participants were 11 years old, and speakers were retested between 2008 and 2010. Participants who became bilingual in those intervening years showed less decline in attention and cognition-related tests.
6. Builds multitasking skills
Current advice suggests multitasking isn't the most efficient way to complete tasks. However, job-seekers will definitely face some situations where multitasking is inevitable. Studying a foreign language could help improve multitasking skills because language switching helps to create new pathways as the brain switches from one language to another.
7. Improves memory
Learning a new language may contribute to better memory. Some studies conducted on bilingual children found them better at memory games than monolingual children. Other studies on new language learners—even those who hadn't mastered another language yet—showed a better capacity for memory tasks. It could even help delay the onset of memory-related age disorders such as Alzheimer's.
How does studying a foreign language benefit a career?
Language learning can directly benefit career searches, especially in a competitive job field. Organizations are increasingly integrated with the global economy; companies are now looking to internationalize and operate in areas where knowing a second language is not only beneficial, but also necessary.
In data science, for example, a company might need a data scientist who can read studies and documentation in Chinese. Another company may need speakers for a new office in Mexico.
In the United States, millions of people speak a language other than English at home. Companies that want to localize and are able to reach these speakers in their native language will have a competitive edge over companies that lack access to speakers of a local language.
What is the importance of language in education?
Language learning has been shown to have a host of benefits in education, including enhancing students’:
- Problem-solving skills
- Memory functioning
- Creative thinking
- Verbal abilities
- Communication skills
- Listening abilities
- Cultural awareness
Students who learn a second language tend to enjoy these cognitive benefits that, in turn, lead to higher academic performance and language abilities.
Students who can speak a second or multiple languages may also read studies and materials in a different language. They can help conduct research with global colleagues, and they have access to knowledge banks in multiple languages—unlike monolingual students who must rely on available translations. Translations take time, and a lot of valuable information can get lost in translation.
How does learning a language help with cultural awareness?
Foreign language programs help to inspire greater cultural awareness. Studying different languages not only equips students with vital business skills, but also encourages students to explore new cultures, connect with native speakers, and travel. History and culture underlie language; in the process of learning new languages, students pick up on cultural traditions and improve their cultural awareness.
Do all students need to learn a foreign language?
All students don't need to learn a foreign language to get by, but all students should strongly consider another language anyway. There are too many benefits to think about the short-term necessity. Mathematics students may not need a second language to master math skills, but second language study can improve analytical skills in the long term. The budding mathematician may have better job prospects in the future and will gain access to expanded research.
What language is easiest to learn?
The easiest language for someone to learn will depend on a student’s first language and current living situation.
Languages that mimic the structure of a student’s native language or stem from a similar/the same common language are often easier to learn. The structures will be familiar to the student, and the language may have some vocabulary in common. Similar languages may also come from similar cultures, making the practice easier.
For instance, Spanish, French, and Italian are all Latin languages that have similarities with English. A native English speaker will often find it easier to learn these languages than, say, learning Japanese.
That said, language similarities aren’t everything. Proximity to other speakers will determine how fast a student can learn a language. For instance, in the United States, students will have an easier time finding native Spanish speakers than native speakers of, say, Portuguese. This access alone is very helpful for language mastery.
What language is hardest to learn?
Like the previous question, this also depends. All languages are easy and difficult because languages are made of multiple components. Students can consider the elements of their own language to make their decision. These considerations are a good start:
- Syntax: The syntax (grammar and structure) of a language could prove challenging. Some languages have more complex tenses or retain cases, while others have more straightforward rules.
- Pronunciation: Languages don't all produce the same sounds. Certain sounds may be difficult for some speakers—Japanese speakers may struggle with the English "th" sound while English speakers struggle with the Arabic guttural "h." A language with vastly different sounds can challenge learners. Languages like Chinese add additional challenges with aspects like voice tones.
- The number of speakers: If a language has relatively few speakers, mastering it could prove difficult, as the student may have a hard time finding people to communicate and practice with. However, if a student lives close to a community of speakers, that language may be easier to pick up.
- Synthetic versus analytic languages: Synthetic languages like Turkish rely on inflection or added components to a root word to express meaning. Analytic languages like Chinese rely on word order and addition to change meaning. Students moving from one type to another may experience challenges at first.
- Formality: Languages with a heavy emphasis on formal or informal forms, such as Korean, may be challenging for speakers of languages with minor differences, such as English.
- Writing system: Students should also consider both written and spoken languages. Languages with unfamiliar scripts may take more time to learn than languages that share the student's mother tongue pronunciation and writing.
Learn languages with edX
The edX platform offers foreign language courses for interested students. Whether you’re looking to learn Chinese, learn Spanish, or learn Japanese, language classes happen online and at a convenient time for the student. It's time to connect with other cultures and build lifetime career skills with foreign language study. You can get started today with a free course from edX!