Learning a foreign language

Are you a monoglot like many British people or do you have a rudimentary knowledge of a language based on learning a foreign language back in your school days? Even a few tentative words and phrases dragged up from your memory can enrich your travel experiences and your appreciation of other cultures.

Why bother learning a foreign language?

Because so many Europeans do speak at least two additional languages one of which is most likely to be English, it is very easy to believe that there is no point in learning a foreign language. After all, which one would you choose. The Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland) and the Netherlands top the list of the best English speakers and so there may be less incentive (or even need) to learn these languages. But what if you visit a country where English is not widely spoken or barely spoken at all?

When we first visited the former Yugoslavia many years ago in the area that is now Slovenia, we didn’t know any Slovenian and most people we met didn’t speak English. However, I managed to have a fascinating conversation with a lady we met while walking in the mountains because we discovered a language we did have in common – German.

Which are the most spoken languages in the world?

Sources do vary on which are the most widely spoken languages because the estimated numbers of speakers of any particular language fluctuates. There is also a distinction between native speakers (people who speak a language as their first language) and non-native speakers (people who speak a language as a second language).

If non-native speakers are included, English is top of the list. However, if we only consider native speakers, English is the third most spoken language in the world with approximately 360 million speakers.

Chinese is the most spoken language (approximately 1.2 billion native speakers of which approximately 1 billion speak Mandarin) and Spanish is second, with approximately 410 million native speakers. If you choose to learn Spanish it will open up a whole new continent  because not only is Spanish the official language in Spain it is also the official language in many central and south American countries. Just think how many countries you could visit if you spoke Spanish.

Why is English so important?

English is used in some of the most economically influential countries in the world, it is the most used language on the internet and it is more influential in the world of business, finance, communication, media and education than any other language. English is also predominantly the language of popular culture – mainly due to the influence of America.

Although the wide use of English does make life easier for native English speakers, there are are still many reasons why you should learn another language.

Why is learning a foreign language good for you?

Unless you plan only to visit English-speaking countries, having some knowledge of another language will make travel much more interesting. Being able to order a beer is one thing but you can get so much more out of your travels if you are able to engage and communicate with local people to get to know more about their life and culture.

Learning a foreign language makes you much more aware of the grammar, conjugations, structure, vocabulary, spelling and quirks (for example English pronunciation) of your own language. As an English speaker you will also discover how many English words originate from other languages such as French and German and consequently get a better understanding of how the English language evolved.

Knowing other languages will give you access to other people and cultures not only through their spoken language but also through their literature, poetry, art, music, films, food, popular and folk culture etc. etc.. If you understand and speak another language (or two) you will open a whole new world of conversation, learning and understanding that is out of the reach of monoglots.

Learning another language helps to improve your memory. Because learning a language involves memorising vocabulary and rules, this helps to strengthen your mental ‘muscle’. Studies have shown that people who speak more than one language are better at remembering names and lists etc..

Studies have also shown that learning a foreign language can slow down age-related cognitive decline which can lead to Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia.

If you want to work and/or live abroad it is even more important to know the language of the country you are are going to. You will integrate far better if you can speak the local language or at least demonstrate a willing to learn.

You are never too old to learn a new language

Forget the received wisdom that children are better at learning languages than adults. Just because you hit a certain age doesn’t mean that you are incapable of learning a foreign language. Children have the advantage of being taught languages in a structured and supportive environment and  they are far less bothered or self conscious about getting things wrong. Adults on the other hand often have to teach themselves and they are embarrassed by any mistakes they make. Although teaching yourself is more challenging, research has shown that adults are not only capable of learning a new language they can often do it quicker and better than children simply because they are motivated and want to learn.

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