Why Learn a Foreign Language


Why learn a foreign language? It takes a long time to learn French, Spanish, or Italian, let alone Chinese or Japanese. So what makes it worth all the hours spent?

It's an important question to answer.

In recent years, particularly the last decade, the US government has taken some interest in having more Americans learn Arabic or Korean. Still there must be other reasons to learn a foreign language aside from concerns over national security.

I certainly think there are satisfying reasons to answer the question why learn a foreign language. And so I’ve compiled what I consider the top 5 – both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ -reasons to hit the books (or the streets and cafes) in search of fluency in a second language.

Here they are, and in no particular order…

1. Expand Your Consciousness

If you learn a foreign language – particularly if you manage to go deep into it, the experience will alter your view of the world.

People express things differently in different languages. This is not just a matter of phrasing things differently, but often the differences reflect completely other ways of thinking and perceiving our reality.

Imagine, if this hasn’t already happened to you, that you learn a word or phrase in your foreign language, and though you understand it perfectly, you realize that it is difficult, or even impossible, to translate into your native language.

What is happening here? What is happening is that your foreign language has exposed you to a new way of seeing and describing reality.

That is indeed precious, or at least just pretty darn cool.

2. Experience Another Culture

This one is not the same as ‘expanding your consciousness’ though it is related.

The issue of consciousness is more about altering or augmenting our perceptions of reality. However culture involves things like food and dining, a people’s or nation’s history, art forms such as dance, music or visual art, also religion, values and maybe politics.

When you learn a language, you get closer to the people who are its speakers, their society, norms and life. Language and culture are very closely tied together.

And to learn another culture is to enrich one’s own life. With the materialistic messages our society throws at us daily, we often are blinded to benefits that don’t translate into dollar signs or more familiar pleasures and comforts. But it is culture and knowledge that refines and elevates our lives after basic needs are met.

So one important answer to why learn a foreign language is to enlighten and educate ourselves through learning about other cultures - through learning about our brothers and sisters on this planet.

3. Plain Old Communication

This is simply the most practical, and arguably the most important reason why you might learn a foreign language. Yes, the world is getting smaller as a result of globalization and technological marvels related to transportation and communication.

Foreign language, these days, is not just something you spruce up for your foreign travels, whether to Paris, Beijing, Tokyo, or Madrid. Speakers of the foreign language you choose to learn are closer and closer to us in proximity today in our daily lives.

If not in physical proximity, then at least they are virtually close.

Needs to communicate with our new (and old) neighbors who speak our target foreign language arises more often today, whether in commerce or professional life, or in our more fluid and flexible social spheres.

4. Ahh, Yes, the Resume

I’d just as soon leave this one out, since it is a bit cliché. But I must admit clichés often have truth to them.

Though not in every professional situation, certainly in many, whether in health care, law, education, business or others, the shine of a foreign language to round out a person’s qualifications may lend that extra gleam that helps you edge out the competition.

Of course, the important assumption being made by the evaluating employer here is that, in fact, the skill is important to your work. So that fact alone should answer why learn a foreign language for you.

But who is going to deny that it’s nice to be able to get in the door first?

Learning a Foreign Language Is Fun

Anyone who has taken up a foreign language and done so with zest and enthusiasm, undoubtedly knows the thrill that goes with actually using it, even in the most mundane situations.

The first time I asked a taxi driver in China to put out his cigarette without using any hand gestures or exaggerated facial expressions – only Mandarin words – to see him extinguish it with a polite apology was a little thrill that I doubt I will ever forget.

Having successful foreign language encounters gives a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment to ourselves that boosts confidence and often even impresses others.

Once you begin to taste these simple pleasures, you no longer bother to ask why learn a foreign language, but rather you just happily push on with it.

Another Perspective

When I consider that the five reasons I've given to answer our question why learn a foreign language, I can't help but notice that all of the points I've raised deal with benefits to ourselves, the language learner.

If we take a broader perspective on the issue, I'm sure we could also come up with another five reasons that don't simply benefit ourselves as learners, but also the speakers of those foreign languages that we choose to learn.

Something else to consider...