Four Unexpected Benefits of Learning a New Language
Here are four benefits of learning your language on your career, education, mental health, and knowledge of your main language — all on top of being able to order food in another language.
People learn languages for many reasons — to travel more, to learn more about other cultures (as we do), for mental exercise, or to read books and poetry. These are all great benefits of learning a new language.
But there are some less-obvious benefits of learning a new language, too. Learning a new language can have a far-reaching effect on your career, on your studies, on your mental health, and even on your knowledge of English.
We spoke to a few people who are experts in the field to get opinions, too.
In this guide…
- The benefits of learning a new language on your education
- How learning a language can help with your career
- How learning a language can help your mental health
- Why learning a new language will help you improve your English
Read on to learn more.
Benefits of Learning a New Language for your Education
When people think of their learning another language for the purposes of education, it’s often because they need a language to study in a certain university.
For example, if you want to study in the Sorbonne, you’ll be able to do a wider variety of courses if you know French. Or if you want to study at Peking University, you’ll be able to take more units if you speak, read, and write Chinese.
But there are some other, less obvious ways in which knowing a language improves your education possibilities.
Firstly, knowing another language helps you get into other selective university and post-graduate study programmes.
To be admitted to many elite universities you need at least a few years of foreign language study under your belt in high school. Stanford encourages students to prepare for a future application by studying a single foreign language for three years, and Harvard encourages students to do the same for four.
Knowing a foreign language helps you with post-graduate admissions, too.
The well-recognised MBA programs from IMD (Switzerland) and INSEAD (France/Singapore) specify knowledge of a second language as one of their admissions criteria.
If you want to study at IMD, you should ideally speak a second language before getting there. Same goes for INSEAD, but they’ll make you to learn a third language at least at a basic level while you’re there, too.
(I found myself gravitating towards those programmes for this specific reason. In the end, I realised that what I really wanted to do was just study a language, so I enrolled in a language course.)
Knowing a language can even just help you pass university admissions tests. Both the GRE and the GMAT have significant language sections. Many people who speak English as a first language didn’t learn grammar in school, and so find “sentence correction” questions difficult.
Have a look at this question, for example.
It is probable that the prototype cellular motor might be ready for testing around the end of next year.
- might be ready for testing around the end of next year
- may be ready for testing about the end of next year
- might be ready for testing toward next year’s end
- will be ready for testing toward the end of next year
- should be ready for testing toward the end of next year
Which one do you think it is?
Benefits of learning a new language for your career
Many people learn a new language thinking that it will open up career opportunities in other countries. This is definitely true, especially for large languages like English.
But learning a language can help you get a job even when the language isn’t required in the job.
At big professional services firms (like where I used to work), resume screeners use a scorecard to grade the many resumes that come through the door. There are many points to get — for good schools, good grades, valuable experience, and leadership positions in clubs.
But one point a candidate can earn in resume screening for having learned another language. When there are only ten points to get, that one point counts for a lot!
Even if having learned a language doesn’t formally get you closer to an interview, having done something difficult and unusual serves to make you more memorable as an applicant. Being memorable in a crowd can make all the difference.
I personally had this experience most recently when applying for a job at a tech company in the US. Even though it was an American company and at the time only had vague international goals, I learned later that people remembered me as “that guy who speaks Chinese”.
Benefits of learning a new language for mental health
Learning a new language is a workout for the brain. It has benefits that are wide-ranging, including helping you multitask, solve problems, and delay Alzheimer’s.
And to top it all off, learning another language makes your brain bigger.
A study from Penn State’s Center for Language Science shows that people who are bilingual outperform monolingual people at multi-tasking.
They found that if you speak a second language fluently, you’re likely to be better at prioritising tasks, working on multiple projects at one time.
Anyone who has had to transition between two worlds — doing flashcards in Chinese while on the subway, then speaking English (or your native language) when you get to home or work — will be familiar with this. We have to think on our feet and switch modes really quickly just to exist.
According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, learning a second language, especially at an early age, helps overall intellectual growth and mental development.
Young people who learn a second language have more flexibility in thinking, a better ear for listening, and gives them a more natural appreciation for people from other cultures.
Learning a second language and using it to make decisions — even if you’re not as fluent in it as you are in your mother tongue — can improve your decision making. A study by the University of Chicago confirmed what we suspect, that we don’t have as much of an emotional connection to a foreign language.
This is why, for example, swearing in another language doesn’t have the same impact as your mother tongue. So by extension, framing a problem and question in a mother language removes emotion from it and makes it easier to make a decision unemotionally.
Polyglots often think in the language they’re most fluent in, or the language they’re most recently been using, or think in abstractions. It depends on the individual, and the thought being expressed.
Learning a language may also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms. The Mayo Clinic says “possibly”, but there needs to be more research. It can’t hurt, anyway.
And a personal note — while it’s impossible for us to directly note any of the above (I can’t say “well, I seem like a better problem solver than I otherwise would be”), learning other languages gives us confidence that we can do really hard things.
Every time we come up across a difficult challenge, we are more and more familiar with that feeling of despair, a sense of lack of progress, and a needless feeling of insecurity around people more capable than us. We fight the same battles over and over, and we get better at it.
So the confidence that we get from learning a new language translates into unexpected areas like learning new skills (dancing, and even weightlifting!), travelling to unusual places, and picking up new jobs.
How learning a language can help you better master English (or another language)
Finally, many English speakers studying a foreign language for the first time find something unexpected — that they know a lot less about English than they thought!
In English-speaking countries, the norm is that people never formally learn grammar. This is the case with everyone I’ve spoken to from Australia, the US, and the UK — though I’m sure there are exceptions out there.
So we learn about English grammar when studying a foreign language.
For example, when studying French or other European languages, we learn that adjectives and nouns have to match in number. It seems like a novel concept.
But we also have the concept of agreement in English. For example “A pack of dogs were chasing me down the alleyway” is an example of a common mistake in subject-verb agreement. In that sentence “pack” is singular, so it should be “a pack of dogs was chasing me”. You see this mistake more commonly in longer sentences — it’s not always so obvious.
Another concept many learn for the first time when studying another language is the subjunctive.
True, the subjunctive bedevils many English speakers learning French or Spanish. ¿Por qué hacía falta que aprendiéramos esta regla loca? Why do we have to learn this crazy rule?
The truth is we have a subjunctive in English too. Here’s a few examples of it:
- It would be nice if you were to come on time for once. (not “if you came“).
- I only ask that he keep this a secret. (not “he keeps“).
- Is it really necessary that she stay at work this late? (not “she stays”)
Subjunctives are the devil for many language learners, but luckily in that case, we have an analogy in English.
If only that were the case with other crazy language concepts like tones, cases, agglutination, verb inflection, and grammatical gender…