A foreign language can be a considerable barrier—or a blessing. I can speak three languages fluently and am learning a few more, and I noticed that speaking someone else’s language (or even one that you both know) can increase the level of connection (and its depth) with that person. From asking for recommendations in a shop to talking about life, using a mutually known form of communication may be the key difference between passers-by and meaningful long-lasting friendships.
Whether you learn a foreign language as a child, in school, to study overseas or just enough to get by when traveling abroad, the benefits are numerous and equally valid for all ages, backgrounds and circumstances. Children who are bilingual (or exposed to this environment) may have better problem-solving and communication skills, as well as stronger cognitive abilities including focus, distraction resistance, judgment, and responsiveness to feedback. What’s wonderful is that these executive cognitive abilities are concentrated in the prefrontal cortex, which is one of the last regions of the brain to mature—even through one’s mid-twenties. The benefits of bilingual education are not limited to the very young!
Speaking a second language has perks related to physical health too, such as delayed symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia, or better cognitive functions following a stroke. And to name a few of the many, more general pros of knowing a foreign language: improved reading skills and academic achievements, bigger brain (literally), better memory, and enhanced decision-making capabilities (including finances and business).
‘Short and sweet’ interactions
Even though there is a myriad of arguments to endorse language learning, I would like to focus more on the human aspect, which includes but is not limited to: social interactions, expanded horizons and perspectives, empathy and acceptance. Happiness (and ultimately life itself) is in the details, right?
Now I’m not saying you should learn the language of every country you visit for a few days, to an advanced level. But even a few essential and useful words or greetings can make a huge difference to your experience and that of the person you’re communicating with. Another thing you may have noticed is how drastically the dynamic changes when a foreigner switches to the local language. The local person suddenly relaxes and changes energies, going from anxious to open and curious. People respect and appreciate when foreigners make an effort, even a little one. That creates a deeper connection, even if temporarily, between two humans who are otherwise so very different. You never know how a simple yet positive interaction like that can make someone’s day.
Wide perspective and inclusive experience
One of the best parts of speaking a foreign language to a conversational or advanced level is a mix of opportunity and ability. The opportunity to choose a student exchange program or even a full degree in another country. The freedom to choose a job and relocate to where you are needed. The ability to adapt and integrate into a different lifestyle and society. The capacity to overcome language and culture barriers when building relationships. The broadened view of the world that usually comes with learning another language well is beneficial in two major ways.
On one hand, it allows us to recognize that country and its culture as a valuable addition to our reality and within a more comprehensive frame of reference. On the other hand, it facilitates us having an inclusive and diverse experience when we are in the middle of it—learning, working, exploring, making friends or finding true love (you never know). The extent to which we can perceive, feel, understand and connect with a new environment and new people, is greatly influenced by our world view and our social, communication and language skills, among other factors. There’s a neurological element to this as well: studies show bilinguals have greater empathy and ability to read others because they are used to blocking out their own feelings and beliefs to accommodate others. Would having greater empathy help you make friends? Without question.
Meaningful relationships and conversations
When we can use another language in a ‘talking about life at 3 a.m. while looking at the stars’ scenario, then we have crossed the bridge towards a deep and meaningful human connection that transcends countries’ limits, race differences and cultural barriers. Those are complex conversations with very little to no loss in translation of words, expressions or ideas. From where I stand now, with the languages I speak and my experience so far, I don’t believe you can truly access and comprehend the beauty and diversity of life without being able to connect to what is different. At least not to the same level or depth.
The moment when I realized this is true and applies to me as well, was after the first profound and raw discussion I had with a friend who is 8,000 miles away. Using English, which is not our first language, we manage (pretty well I might say) to learn a lot of things from one another, to exchange ideas and manage projects, to laugh and make fun of each other, to have both enjoyable and difficult conversations, to ‘experience’ each other in a multitude of ways. Unluckily, this happens online (in big part due to current circumstances) which takes away from the relationship’s potential, but I look forward to exploring the depths of our friendship in person, together with everything that corner of the world has to offer—food, cultures, languages, arts and all the ‘flavors and colors’ in between.
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Photo: Waldemar Brandt via Unsplash; Clay Banks via Unsplash