Over 12 years ago, Benny Lewis made the fateful decision to start learning Spanish while spending time in Valencia, Spain. Now Benny speaks over 12 languages, he’s traveled around the world, and he runs a 6-figure online business encouraging others to learn foreign languages.
Tim Doner got the language bug as a teenager, and back when he was 16-year old he made a YouTube video that went viral: in it, he spoke 20 languages. Tim has since featured on major news outlets around the world, recorded his own TED Talk, and begun his studies at Harvard.
While you may see the examples of Benny and Tim as exceptional, you’d be amazed at the world of opportunities that can suddenly open at you if you put in the right amount of time and effort toward achieving the lofty goal of learning a foreign language.
Since everyone needs a bit of convincing from time to time, this article will introduce 10 amazing ways learning a foreign language can completely transform your life. Along the way, I’ll give you a couple of insider tips and info that you can start using now to jumpstart your foreign language acquisition journey and to make the whole experience exciting and rewarding. So in earnest…
1. Make friends all over the world
When you’re learning a language the opportunities to make new friends both inside and outside your country are immense. The best part is that you’ll get to befriend people who see things from a different perspective, and you’ll get to learn about their country and culture.
Looking to find friends who speak your target language? Then why not start with your existing network of friends, co-workers and family? Ask around the office, at home, at the pub, at your next family gathering, or on social media. It’s as simple as asking whether anybody knows someone who speaks French, Portuguese, Japanese, or Spanish. Found the right person? Then see if they’re interested in a language swap; set a date to meet each week and aim to speak for 30 minutes in one language and 30 minutes in the other.
If you live in a bigger city, you definitely should try the website Meetup. Simply search to see if there’s a meetup for enthusiasts of your target language that meet regularly in your city.
Or why not try hosting on Couchsurfing? Invite travellers from around the globe to come and stay at your place for free; you’ll get to practice your language skills with interesting people and, who knows, develop lasting friendships that may make it a whole lot easier to find a free bed and friendly people the next time you’re abroad.
If you can’t find any opportunities to practice locally, not to worry, there’s actually an immense pool of incredibly useful resources that you can tap from the click of a mouse to find contacts from all over the world. Here are just a few:
- Italki – Awesome resource for finding free language exchange partners or paid teachers (over Skype) at insanely reasonable rates. If you would rather skip the 30 minutes in English, you can pay a teacher to talk to you and coach you for an hour in your target language.
- Language Exchanges – Great website for finding exchange partners for speaking practice over skype.
- Conversation Exchange – Also great for finding exchange partners for skype practice.
- Hello Talk – Great app that makes it easy to use on your smartphone or tablet when on the go.
- Interpals – More interested in writing than in speaking to someone? This resource is great for finding a penpal.
2. Find new job opportunities
According to the Economist, foreign language studies could equate to an additional US$67,000 in earnings spread over a 40-year career (based on an average starting salary in the US). But while the money is great, the benefits of learning a foreign language don’t stop there.
In an increasingly globalised competitive market, employers are increasingly looking for bilingual candidates.
A survey on employment trends published by iseek found that 9 out of 10 head hunters in Europe, Latin America, and Asia say that being at least bilingual is critical for success in today’s business environment. And 66 percent of North American recruiters agreed that being bilingual will be increasingly important in the next 10 years.
An article in the International Business Times referred to results from a survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which noted that “the employment of translators and interpreters in the [U.S.] is expected to increase by 22 percent between 2008 and 2018.”
A second language, then, not only helps to boost your long-term earnings potential, but it also opens up a wide array of long term career prospects in the years to come.
3. Have richer travel experiences
Last year I was able to tick an important item off of my bucket list by going to a big European soccer game. The game was sold out but I was able to get a free ticket from a friend of mine, who I had met through a language exchange online. The game, atmosphere, and overall experience were amazing—I will never forget it!
Benny Lewis uses his language skills to barter for cheap accommodation in the local dialect. He likes to find big places with multiple bedrooms, which allows him to host couch surfers and make friends wherever he goes.
Chris Parker, a Beijing-based Chinese-English interpreter who runs the website “Fluent in Mandarin”, has recently been featured in a series of TV shows featuring foreigners who speak fluent Chinese on provincial TV. You never know, maybe your decision to learn a foreign language could, one day, lead you to a appear on national TV in some foreign, exotic land!
4. Gain a better understanding of the subtleties of culture through language
One of the most enjoyable aspects of learning a foreign language is studying the differences between a culture overseas and the one at home.
In his TED talk, Tim Doner explains the enjoyment he gets from studying foreign cultures through language. He gives the interesting example of how in Farsi, when you walk into a shop and ask how much something is, the shop owner is likely to respond: “Ghabeli nadaareh” – which roughly translates to “it’s worthless.” He explains that in Persian culture it’s common practice for two people to try to behave in a more humble manner than their counterpart.
I have experienced similar differences with culture in Spain. When you ask for food in a Spanish restaurant you need to be far more direct than in English.
For example, if you translated literally the question “can I have a soft drink?” in Spanish, you might hear the server say: “yes you can, but do you want one?” Instead you have to say:
“Quiero un refresco” – I want a soft drink, or
“Ponme un refresco” – give me a soft drink.
These responses sound rude when translated to English but they are perfectly normal in Spanish. While apparently trivial, this example serves to show that often, cultural differences are all in the details, and as you proceed with your foreign language acquisition journey, it’s truly fascinating to learn about them!
5. Find a fascinating assortment of new TV shows, music, books & movies
Outside of travel and work, learning a new language can bring about some serious change in the way you spend your free time – big time.
If you love reading, a good place to start to find foreign language books is by searching for bilingual novels. You can find a good example for Spanish students here. And if you’re up for a challenge, you can find a list of some of the top rated Spanish books of all time here (in Spanish only).
Want to study your target language through music? A great place to find popular music in your target language is on the iTunes store. Scroll down to the bottom of your iTunes window and change your location to a country that speaks your target language, then simply search the top charts of that country for your favourite genre of music.
Prefer listening to the radio? All you have to do is Google “streaming + [country] + radio”, for example “streaming Russian radio”, and you will find a long list of websites that stream the local radio stations online. Another tip is to remember that Google is a location-based search engine. If you want better results for your search queries click on the “settings” icon on the right of the Google search result page and click “Advanced Search”. From there you can change your language and country settings to better match those that a native speaker in your target language could have – try it, you’ll instantly get tons of relevant results from your chosen country.
Prefer movies or TV shows? If you’re looking for good foreign movie to watch, head over to IMDB. Down the right hand column, you can sort movies by popularity, country, or language.
Watching movies or TV shows in a foreign language can be a bit of a challenge, I’ll concede. Not to worry though. If you’re just starting out, simply start watching movies in your target language with subtitles in English. Then, as you progress, transition to using subtitles in your target language. When you’re ready, watch foreign movies with no subtitles at all. It’s good practice, and it’s fun!
6. Become more patient
“Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.” —Joyce Meyer.
Impatience is simply the frustration that comes as a result of constantly measuring the difference between where you are now and where you want to be. If that difference is, say, 6 months’ worth of work, you will be constantly frustrated unless you can learn to focus on the here and now.
One of the best ways to improve your patience is to take your eye off of the end goal. This requires some balance because goal setting is an important part of achievement and self-improvement.
Rather than setting destination goals, try to set journey goals. For example, instead of setting a goal such as “trying to reach fluency by the end of the year”, set SMART goals such as the following: “learn just one new word today.” Don’t worry about tomorrow — focus on building a healthy routine, every day.
To put this idea another way, bring your target closer to where you stand now. If you’re aiming far off into the distance and you can’t hit anywhere near the mark in the near future, readjust your scope so that you can hit the target every day or week, and then reward yourself for it. Once you’re comfortable hitting this close target you can slowly move it away.
For example, rather than telling yourself “I want to become fluent in Spanish by the end of 2017” which is a vague, distant goal, tell yourself “I will listen to 30 minutes of Spanish audio lessons every day while commuting to and from work/school”. At the end of the week, if you’ve stuck with your goal, by yourself a nice meal at the local taquería, or purchase that CD from a popular Cuban artist you’ve wanted to have for so long.
7. Improve your ability to empathise
The word “empathy” tends to get overused. Let’s start with a simple definition.
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as:
The feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.
I remember times while I was traveling in Spain when I felt completely overwhelmed, stressed, frustrated, and even ashamed by my level of Spanish.
It’s hard to say that you truly understand or share someone else’s feelings, but these days whenever I see someone struggling with English I can think back to my stress with the language in Spain.
Roman Krznaric, a PhD in political sociology, wrote in his article “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People” that key behaviours of emphatic people include:
- Cultivate curiosity about strangers
- Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
- Try another person’s life
- Listen hard and open up
- Inspire mass action and social change, and
- Develop an ambitious imagination
These key behaviours overlap strongly with the process that is learning a foreign language and opening yourself up to a new culture, so they’ll become a lot easier to develop once you start getting serious about language learning.
8. Develop willpower
Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida state university, wrote a book on willpower called “Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength”. Baumeister begins his book with the premise that self-control in young children is a better indicator of success than any other factor.
One study, known as the cookie study, tested the self-control of a number of pre-schoolers under a controlled experiment. The pre-schoolers were told they could eat a chocolate chip cookie that was sitting in front of them, thereby satisfying their desire for instant gratification. The catch, though, is that the pre-schoolers were also told that if they waited 15 minutes, they could have two entire cookies to themselves. Hmm… hard decision, right?
But the study doesn’t stop there. Over the next 40 years, Professor Baumeister’s team tracked the students from the original experiment in a follow-up study. What they found was that the students who had been able to wait the 15 minutes for the additional cookie went on to have much more success in life.
In his book, Baumeister explains that willpower can easily be improved. How? By simply using it. The more you can employ self-control in your daily tasks, the more self-control you will have.
That’s good news because as language learners, every time we don’t feel like studying our target language and we do it anyway, we get to improve our self-control.
So what’s the best part about building willpower? Any willpower developed from your language studies can then be applied to anything else you are trying to achieve: getting fit, quitting smoking, or cutting down on ice cream. See, I told you language learning could be life changing.
9. Enhance your social skills
Socialising is a skill and, just like strength training or learning a musical instrument, it gets better by putting in the reps.
My language learning routine typically includes 6-8 hours of one-on-one language exchanges every week. This forces me to practice the art of making conversation.
10. Increase your resilience to uncertainty
“Everything changes and nothing stands still.” — Heraclitus.
Life is about change. As much as we all love trying to find stability in our lives, the most constant there is out there happen to be… change.
Being able to find comfort or at least detachment in times of uncertainty is a skill that will serve you for the rest of your life.
When you’re at the early stages of learning a language, you’ll be missing a ton of information. Indeed, whether you’re watching a movie, reading a book, sitting in a language class, or speaking with natives, you’ll need to develop an ability to negotiate ambiguity through guesswork. If you don’t, your life will likely become miserable.
Each time you find yourself confused because of a lack of certainty with your target language, ask yourself: “what is the true consequence on not knowing what this means?” More often than not, you’ll find that the negative effects of ambiguity have far less impact than what your emotions are telling you.
The more you can be at ease with not knowing what is being said or what is going to happen during “lost in translation” moments, the more you’ll be able to deal with the turbulence that comes with life on planet earth.
Learning a foreign can be incredibly rewarding. Simply being able to speak with someone in a language you didn’t learn as a child is thrilling.
But apart from the direct day-to-day experience of using the language, learning a foreign language will bring about amazing changes in all facets of your life. Whether it’s meeting new friends, reading a fascinating book in its original language, finding more appreciation for your own culture, or improving your social skills, the changes that come from learning a language make it truly worthwhile. The decision to start (or keep going) is something you won’t regret.
I’ve listed 10 reasons languages can truly change your life. What are yours?
Andrew Barr is a hispanophile and has been studying Spanish for 7 years. He now runs RealFastSpanish.com, which