Many Americans believe that learning a second language is important. However, we are a largely monolinguistic country, with about 75% of the population speaking only English.
As English becomes more widely spoken and translation technology improves, some believe that the need to learn a foreign language is not necessary, especially if you already speak the "language of business."
Regardless, there are countless benefits to learning a second language, and if the United States wishes to compete in the global economy, Americans are going to have to step up their game.
Making tortillas in Magdalena, Guatemala (2018)Instagram: @brittharms
My journey to bilingualism started when I encountered a Spanish phrasebook in my middle school library at age 11. I was enthralled by the idea of speaking Spanish, so I borrowed the phrasebook three times in one school year.
After many years of classes, practice, and language immersion (including a semester studying in Bilbao, Spain), I reached Spanish fluency at age 19.
During that eight-year period, there were many days when I didn't believe my dream would be realized. Looking back now on years of struggle and triumph, I see that there are more benefits to learning a language than I had ever imagined.
Of course, there are obvious benefits to becoming bilingual. With a second language, you can communicate with people around the world, enjoy foreign entertainment, and of course, find a job more easily.
But beyond these obvious benefits are secret perks that I wish I knew during moments when language learning was especially hard:
Learning a second language literally makes your brain grow. A Swedish study in 2012 used MRI brain scans to reveal that language students' brains grew in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex after an intensive language course. Students of non-language subjects such as medicine showed no brain growth even though they also studied hard in intensive courses.
A 2010 study from Canada looked at Alzheimer's patients' brains and revealed that being bilingual promotes brain health and delays the onset of Alzheimer's disease by an average of 4.3 years.
You will gain more cultural sensitivity and understanding. When you start to pick up a second language, you learn more about the culture of its speakers. Learning a new language develops tolerance and understanding for the "other."
Whether you travel the world or just around your neighborhood, it's easy to encounter speakers of other languages. Understanding the vernacular of a group will grow your compassion for them and gain you friends in a new language!
Basque Country, Spain (2016)Instagram: @brittharms
A new language gives you a new perspective on the world. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a theory of communication which states that language structure and vocabulary dictates the perception of human experiences. Put simply, the language (or languages) we speak govern the way that we think about life.
For example, languages which contain several words to mean "love" give speakers a more distinct understanding of the different types of love.
On the contrary, English uses one word, "love", to describe that which is romantic, spiritual, platonic, or relating to trivial things like your favorite boy band (which is One Direction, FYI).
In a 2012 TED Talk, Keith Chen describes how the language we speak can affect how we save money.
Some languages use one verb tense to talk about the past, present, and future, which causes the speaker to think of the future as more connected to the present than languages that use separate verb tenses for past, present, and future.
By being able to think to yourself in another language, you will gain a more nuanced understanding of reality and self-expression.
While it's true that language learning has tangible benefits when it comes to traveling, communicating, and finding a job, the joys of bilingualism extend far beyond that. As you learn a foreign language, you will notice some of these hidden benefits in your own life!