For those of us hailing from an English-speaking country, we are blessed to have learned English from birth. We don’t have to join the over 1 billion English learners worldwide to reap the benefits of being able to communicate across borders. However, growing up speaking the world’s lingua franca has one major drawback: we only speak the world’s lingua franca.
Raised in the United States with two monolingual parents, I never really gave too much thought to learning a second language – that was until I started surfing. I was 15 when my best friend’s older brother let us tag along with him on a surf trip to the Oregon coast. There, in the frigid undulating waters of the north Pacific, I caught my first wave.
I soon started dreaming of grabbing my board and backpack and striking out to explore the unknown tropical breaks of Central and South America. But in order to find hidden breaks in a tropical paradise full of tourists and other traveling surfers, I needed to be able to make friends with the local surfers – and I needed to learn Spanish. Over the next six years, I studied Spanish in high school and university, then in Ecuador and later in Costa Rica, where I put my skills to use while teaching surfing. Learning a second language not only gave me the opportunity follow my dream and to work abroad, but it also helped me to broaden my horizons. I’d even say it changed the course of my life.
Whatever your dream (learning to make sushi in Tokyo, maybe?), learning the local language is often the only way to make it happen. English may be widespread, but it won’t open all the doors you need. And learning a second language has other benefits too – many of them highly tangible – from boosting your career prospects to training your brain.
Boost your career
When I started learning Spanish, I never really thought about how much fun it would be to live and work abroad, but soon into my time in Ecuador and Costa Rica, mundane tasks like finding an apartment to rent and getting my hair cut suddenly became exciting. They also taught me a lot. I learned to be more flexible and considerate by navigating daily life in a new language and a new culture.
These types of skills are highly valued in today’s workplace, particularly in firms and organizations that have international staff or that operate internationally. Vicky Gough, a British Council adviser, notes that “being able to adapt what you’re saying in different ways, having cultural sensitivity and also having an awareness of your own culture,” are critical to predicting an employee’s success in the workplace. They can also secure you a higher salary. While the percent increase depends on your industry, location, and level of employment, multiple studies have been done in the UK, the US, and Canada, as well as in our very own EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), to highlight the financial rewards associated with speaking more than one language.
At the societal level, Anglo-Saxon economies, from the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand to Canada, also need employees with language skills that help businesses seize international growth opportunities. In the UK, for example, a striking £48bn a year, or 3.5% of GDP, is estimated to be lost to a lack of language skills.
But does all of this matter since “everybody speaks English,” you might ask? It does. As the EF English Proficiency Index (EPI) shows, a global study of English levels around the world, of the 72 non-native English-speaking countries in the study, only 42 had populations with proficiency ratings over 50 percent. Although a lot of people speak English at some level, it is simply not as efficient to speak to them in English as it would be to speak to them in their native tongue. A lot of information can be lost and there is a much bigger chance of misunderstandings when communicating with English only.
It goes without saying that in business or politics the implications of this are huge. But the impact is tangible even on an individual level: I would never have made the connections and the friends I did in Costa Rica had I relied on English only. Whether I needed to figure out my bus connection or I wanted to talk about swell direction with a local surfer, speaking Spanish allowed me to move from a foreigner to a peer; to go much deeper into the experience of traveling and getting to know a new culture.
Train your brain
If you’re still not convinced that learning a second language is worth it, consider this: There is overwhelming evidence that while bilingual brains may not be smarter (the jury’s still out on that), they work differently than their monolingual counterparts. And perhaps most intriguingly, they stay healthy for longer. By seamlessly switching between languages, researchers believe bilinguals create a “cognitive reserve” that may account for why people who speak more than one language regularly get dementia or Alzheimer’s later in life.
A new language is also tied to a new worldview. In Romance languages, for example, there is a subjunctive form used to make future plans. It also implies a sense of uncertainty. So, when making plans in a Romance language like Spanish, those plans are actually much less certain than they are in more goal-oriented languages like German. Experiencing this in Ecuador was frustrating at first, but as I became more fluent in Spanish, I also found myself understanding and using the language in the same way. My brain adapted to a new language, but also to a new way of living.
Go beyond your comfort zone
And perhaps this is why learning a second language as an English-speaker is so valuable: It takes us beyond our comfort zone, and challenges us to seek out new perspectives and to connect to the world in a more meaningful way.