Most people are forced to learn foreign languages in high school. They usually blow through it and end up not learning a thing, only to regret it once adulthood rolls around. Other than allowing you to communicate effectively with other people, it also has other side benefits that usually do not come to mind when one sets out to learn a foreign language.
1. It will improve your skills in your native language
When you learn the intricacies of another language, you will begin to notice great differences in the way phrases and sentences are formulated. This will occur even between languages of the same family. For example, although German and English are both Germanic languages, the sentence structures are completely different.
When you systematically learn a new language and learn a new concept in that language, you begin to think about that concept in the context of your own language. In fact, you may also not have realized that you have been using this concept incorrectly the whole time in your native language because you never learned your native language in a systematic manner.
An example of this would be the subjunctive case. It is commonly used in French and even more so and in a more complex manner in Spanish. In English, however, this case is rarely recognized. In fact, the vast majority of native English speakers may not even be aware of this case or its common (mis)use.
In case you were wondering, the subjunctive case expresses hypothetical situations, generally beginning with or containing the word “if”. For example, somebody wants to buy a pack of cigarettes, but cannot because he or she is not old enough. He or she would probably say, “If only I WAS older, I could buy these cigarettes”. The correct way of expressing this is, “If only I WERE older, I could buy these cigarettes”. If you are interested in why this is the case, you should read further into the English subjunctive.
Why should you understand your native language fully? Simply put, it allows for better communication. Not only in the general sense, but more specifically with people of different backgrounds. Using more sophisticated and correct grammar usually attracts successful people, the kind you want to surround yourself with if you yourself want to be successful.
In addition, understanding your native language better allows you to better enjoy the classics written in previous eras. For example, if you are able to understand how grammar works in English properly, you can breeze through Shakespeare’s classics without much trouble, as opposed to most of the English-speaking world who struggle to understand the true meanings of what Shakespeare has written. Being able to understand older (which is generally more correct) prose allows you to truly understand why these stories are classics. And knowing these stories well also make you a more interesting person.
2. You will process thoughts more quickly
Speaking another language is hard, simply put. Especially if you’re among native speakers because of the speed at which they speak. When you are around them, you are expected to reciprocate communication before they become extremely bored with your incompetence. This is because you have to listen to what they say, translate it at a surface or literal level, process it to understand what they are really saying, formulate your response, translate your own thoughts literally, restructure it so that it is properly expressed in the other language, then actually say it.
Looking at the above order of events, it is truly remarkable how quickly your brain functions. However, when you first learn a language, as with any skill, your brain cannot complete all these steps quickly. Another problem is that while you intently listen because of the sheer speed of the native speaker’s talking, there is an extra lag that occurs. And when you try to compensate for that lag, even more mental capacity is used, at which point you just give up altogether and stupidly nod in agreement. This person could have said that the sky was purple and you could have wholeheartedly supported his or her outrageous claim. Everyone has been there, even the best orators.
However, when you can train your mind to do this on a constant basis, it becomes better and more efficient at completing the entire process. Think of the process like running a mile. The end goal of communication is the one-mile marker and the mental capacity is your stamina. When you first start running, your results are most likely dismal. However, with practice, you begin to run faster and better utilize your existing stamina while developing more. Eventually, you have developed the stamina and control to run three miles. Then five miles. Then ten miles!
In the same way, once you have trained your mind to think more quickly through learning languages, this efficiency can be applied to other areas of life and your overall thought process efficiency is improved, allowing for more alertness and presence.
3. Your fears will seem less scary
When you speak a language that you have just learned with native speakers, this is one of the most fearsome situations you will ever encounter in your life. If you have done this already, you understand how it feels.
Because the language is part of the identity of a group of people, your ability to speak it is a direct reflection of your understanding of a society. On a conscious level, neither party really acknowledges this undertone. The learner is inexplicably nervous and the native speaker is becoming increasingly frustrated and bored with the conversation. Due to the fact that identity is one of the most deeply rooted facets of the society, the stakes are incredibly high.
This is perceived at a higher degree of consciousness by the learner than by the native speaker, because the native speaker understands and is generally willing to put up with the fact that the learner is even attempting to do so. However, the learner does not know how he or she will be judged by the native speaker, hence the source of this perfectly reasonable fear.
However, once you understand that there is not as much of a reason to fear as you think, you begin to speak more easily. Your mind is more at ease. You can only overcome this fear by facing it head-on. And because this is such a legitimate fear with what seems like extraordinary consequences, once you have conquered it, you feel like you can conquer so many other little fears that you have.
4. You will understand the essence of a culture
As mentioned above, the language of a society is highly linked to its identity, and you can understand the culture much better. Because language is used as a primary means of communication, it contains many cultural messages that cannot always be learned through a quick study of the culture. In fact, because the native speakers do not have an outside perspective, they may not even be aware of this fact.
For example, if a language has multiple words for what in English is referred to as a “goat”, it can be inferred that goats play an integral part in that society’s culture. A real world example of this is found in French. The word for the youngest brother in a family is “le benjamin”. This is a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob’s twelve sons who later became the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel, as Benjamin was the youngest of them all. From this, you can reach the conclusion that French society has pious, Christian roots.
5. Your critical thinking skills will be sharpened
As shown above, a lot goes into learning and speaking a foreign language than what meets the eyes and ears. Your mind has to process all these thoughts, meanings and translations efficiently and accurately, usually just from what you know.
However, if you come to a term or phrase you don’t know exactly how to word, your mind can create a way to speak around it or simply find the correct word after having simply observed language patterns. All this without you having to know the word. Pretty cool, right? It’s like your mind can give you the word without you even having to know it exactly. This is a form of critical thinking, arguably the most valuable skill a person can have.
If you are learning another language and don’t know the word for “airplane”, but you can say “the thing that flies”, more often than not, the native speaker can understand you. This is a very basic example. Your mind can do much more than you often give it credit for.
When we have a problem in life, there is almost never a solution given to you on a silver platter. Our ability to work around the problem or solve it comes from our critical thinking skills. The process the mind goes through above to solve the problem is some of the most intense critical thinking that is done. Therefore, if you can improve that skill, your overall critical thinking abilities will be enhanced.