We live in an increasingly connected and globalized world. Rapid advancements in technology and transportation have ‘shrunk’ the globe and this trend shows no sign of slowing down. For most of human history, traveling across the ocean consisted of a treacherous, several-month voyage. Today, you can make a spur-of-the-moment decision and be anywhere in the world in less than 24 hours. This massive uptick in global connectedness has resulted in exponential increases in international trade, politics, travel and immigration, as well as a broader awareness of what lies beyond our borders. With this as our context, there has never been a better time to learn a foreign language.
The motivations for learning a language vary vastly from person to person. You might be looking to further your career opportunities in the business field. Speaking a local language can add ease and depth to your international travel – this may be attractive to you. Learning the language of your immigrant neighbor might be a way to go above and beyond in loving them. Maybe you have always been fascinated with a culture and speaking the language would open a million doors, helping you understand it further. Perhaps you want to be the next Jason Bourne. The possibilities are endless, and the reasoning is totally in your court.
Think of it this way: every major language opens doors to hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people you were previously unable to communicate with. Few other investments of your time yield such high dividends.
And guess what? The benefits of language learning far exceed simply being able to communicate with a previously unreachable audience. A large swath of research shows that language learning has significant positive effects on cognitive functioning and even changes the structure of the brain for the better. Studying a foreign language has been shown to increase the density of gray matter in the brain, resulting in higher processing ability and mental development. Language learning has also been shown to increase the volume of the brain’s white matter, producing faster processing speeds. Bilingual people tend to be better at focusing on relevant information and ignoring irrelevant stimuli, a function known as inhibitory control. This is because both of their language systems are always active and competing. Other noteworthy benefits include improved memory, greater attention to detail, and delayed onset of age-related illnesses like Alzheimer’s. The benefits of learning a language are many.
You may be thinking: “This all seems fine and good, but languages just aren’t my strong suit!” I want to push back on that. You learned to speak English, right? It is all about having the proper motivation and learning what works for you. You might argue that technological innovations such as real-time translation will soon replace the need for language learning. While this might work for a desperate tourist attempting to locate the restroom, it cannot replace the authentic human connection that comes from being able to have real, unhindered, in-depth conversations in the same language.
Free apps such as Duolingo have made it easier than ever to begin to learn more than 40 languages. A website called Lingopie allows you to learn and immerse yourself in a language while watching TV or movies. The Foreign Service Institute has free declassified courses on its website for just about every language you can think of. Music and podcasts abound in every major language. Never have there been so many resources. Never has the time been better to acquire a foreign language. Start small, and you might be surprised by just how worth your time learning a language really is.