Isn’t learning lots of languages useless?

I often ask myself the question, whether learning all these languages isn’t a colossal waste of time.

Short answer?

It totally is.

You lose an incredible amount of time on learning yet another language (that you possibly don’t even need), which would be better invested somewhere else. I personally enjoy the process and it keeps my mind busy but that’s not something a “normal person” could identify with. However, there are a few tangible and intangible benefits that apply to everyone that we’re going to talk about.

Tangible benefit #1: It helps in your work life

Let’s be honest here.

The only language you really need “to improve your career” is good ol’ English. I find it quite funny when people come to me with the idea to “learn German because they might need it for work in the future”. Any global firm these days functions in English. You absolutely do not need any other language to climb the career ladder, in fact, you’d actively self-sabotage trying to improve your language or use anything else but English.

So then where do other languages come in there?

Imagine you work for a multinational and get offered a position in sunny Spain. It’s been always your dream to move to the Costa Brava and enjoy tapas in Barcelona while putting your legs up at work. Your boss promises you a fat raise and good career prospects after your stint there. You can either stay in Barcelona or return home. Spanish isn’t needed because the company’s lingua franca isn’t needed. Great, you think.

You arrive in Barcelona and everything turns out just the way you could’ve wished for. Life is good and work is going great. However, you haven’t really made friends yet. It’s not that you work long hours but your sub-standard Spanish has been nothing but useless in terms of socializing. At work, all colleagues are friendly and speak English, but you’re only one of a handful of expats and most of the other ones speak Spanish as well. As a result, you end up being mostly silent during the very chatty lunch breaks you have together…

This is an all-too-familiar situation for many of my students. They all want to improve their German not because they need it for work but for office politics and social life. These two are just as important as the actual output you produce so learning the language does have tangible benefits in this case.

To those that argue “but you can always get around with English” I’ll reply: yes, you can do exactly that. You “get around” with English but the worse you speak the required language, the less you’ll feel as a part of the group and society you’re in.

Tangible benefit #2: it gives you access to a bigger pool of potential mates

This is an extension of the first point. Depending on where you are, knowing the language can be less or more important to meet women (or men, for the ladies reading). In Russia, you get your pick of English-speaking women but knowing Russian is a “very nice to have”. Somewhere like East Asia it would be almost mandatory to know at least a little bit of the local language to make your dating life easier, whereas you wouldn’t bother with learning Swedish to meet blonde bombshells.

You don’t have to live in a country for business reasons though. Maybe you just have a thing for Russian women *cough cough*. Knowing some Russian is very useful in this case. Same for Japanese or Latinas. Probably the number one reason why men my age would bother with learning another language would be getting some action hehe.

Tangible benefit #3: it’s great exercise for your brain

This won’t surprise anyone. Learning languages has beneficial effects for your mental abilities. I quote:

Recent evidence suggests a positive impact of bilingualism on cognition, including later onset of dementia. However, monolinguals and bilinguals might have different baseline cognitive ability. We present the first study examining the effect of bilingualism on later-life cognition controlling for childhood intelligence. We studied 853 participants, first tested in 1947 (age = 11 years), and retested in 2008–2010. Bilinguals performed significantly better than predicted from their baseline cognitive abilities, with strongest effects on general intelligence and reading. Our results suggest a positive effect of bilingualism on later-life cognition, including in those who acquired their second language in adulthood.

Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4320748/

In short, being bilingual is good for your reading ability and overall intelligence and keeps your brain fitter even in old age. Personally, I can attest to that. Every time I put in some time with Spanish, it feels like I’ve had a brain workout and feel energized and productive.

Intangible benefit #1: it makes you feel worldly and smart

Besides making you actually smarter, speaking one or many foreign languages also makes you feel smarter. The feeling is hard to describe but being able to talk to many different people in a room in their own language feels very special. Personally, I can think of two benefits here. First, people are impressed by your skills and that boosts your ego. It also raises your status vis-a-vis the person you’re talking to because multilinguals are (rightly) perceived as highly intelligent. Second, it makes you feel more relatable because you’re able to part of a group or a society that you usually wouldn’t belong to. In other words, it’s much easier to make friends when you speak someone’s language and you feel smart when doing so.

Intangible benefit #2: it improves your communication and social skills

Being completely honest, I wouldn’t say that the polyglots that I’ve met have above-average social skills. Which begs the question – what are good social skills?

To keep it brief, I’d say being a good communicator and a good listener plays a big role. What you say and how you say it, verbally and non-verbally, makes up our first impression of someone. A language is just the medium that you use to communicate this message verbally. Here, I personally haven’t noticed that polyglots are particularly likeable or extroverted or charismatic or whatever would come to one’s mind when you think of a person with good social skills. Many of them are in fact quite introverted and nerdy.

Speaking about my own experience though, I can definitely say that learning all these languages has made a massive difference for my confidence and how I carry myself. It’s an entirely different story when you can have a profound conversation with someone in their own native language. On top of that, you learn how to get your point across in a different language, which is also a different way of structuring your thoughts. This ties into better communication skills.

That’s why this one is a massive benefit in my opinion.

Intangible benefit #3: it broadens your horizon

The last one is a bit fluffy but unless you’re only interested in, let’s say getting to know the other sex, then inevitably you’re going to learn a thing or two about the history, culture and what makes people tick that speak Spanish or Russian or whatever. I have learned a huge deal about US culture because I was so fascinated with it in my youth, to the point where I sometimes felt more in sync with it than with my own. The US has a huge influence on Western countries, so this one’s maybe not the best example. But the more fluent you become, the more little jokes and intricacies you pick up. You start to understand what actually makes up “only in Russia”.

On a more basic level this works as well. Even being conversational in a language opens little doors like having a random conversation with a taxi driver or being invited over by hospitable people for a meal. If travel is a therapy, then adding language skills on top is a therapy on steroids.

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