5 Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language, and 2 Selfless Ways to Do It


Back in 2001, I joined the Army.  I did this because of 9/11.  However, I knew I wasn’t going to just take any old job they wanted me to take.  I specifically wanted to be a linguist.

I had always heard that the US military had one of the best language schools in the world, providing “full immersion” training (language instruction in the native language, for those who aren’t familiar with the term “immersion”).  It’s as close as you can get to learning in a foreign country without actually being there.

So, after 16 months of 7 hours a day training, I graduated as a qualified Chinese Mandarin linguist, having passed the Defense Language Proficiency Test.

Learning a second language is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.  But it’s been absolutely wonderful for my personal development, even though there were many times when I wasn’t too happy about the choice I’d made to do it.  Here are 5 reasons why I would suggest EVERYONE attempt to learn a language other than your native one.

1. Another tool in your toolbox. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re the entrepreneurial sort, or someone who draws a paycheck.  Knowing a foreign language makes you more attractive to potential employers/clients.  It opens up new opportunities for you to assist in ways that you simply couldn’t without being multi-lingual.

But, it’s first and foremost another way to serve others.  Because I speak another language, I’ve had the opportunity to communicate with people that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.  It’s allowed me to help them get to where they needed to go.  Would they have figured it out on their own?  Yeah, probably.  Was it nice for them to get to speak to someone in their own language (albeit stuttering ol’ me) in a foreign country that seemed to be confusing to them?  You bet it was.  You should have seen their faces light up when they heard a white guy speak Mandarin.  Priceless. 🙂

2. Develop discipline. Language learning requires effort every single day.  It’s not something you can pick up with two lessons a week.  Understanding how to develop a habit of consistency, and why it’s so important, is the single greatest lesson I discovered as I was going through language school.  I can say honestly that the only reason I got any discipline at all from the military was because I went to language school.

3. Expanded horizons, for you and others. Learning a new language requires you to learn something about another culture.  Some cultures are more foreign than others, but every single one does at least one thing differently than what you’re used to.  By taking the time and effort to understand a certain idiom or mannerism necessary to communicate effectively in a new language, you open your eyes to new experiences.

Additionally, you’re going to meet people that don’t think the same way you do.  The process of learning a language allows you to ask all kinds of questions that may be taboo in another culture, or simply not often questioned.  The exchange of ideas, and the necessity to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, provides a growth opportunity for both parties.  Is this going to solve world hunger, or the nuclear weapons problem?  Not hardly.  But it can make a big difference in your life, and in the life of the person you’re speaking with.

4. Gain confidence. Speaking to someone new has always been difficult for me.  Speaking with someone new in a new language, well… that’s exponentially harder. I’m still much better at understanding spoken Mandarin than I am at speaking it myself.

But speaking up in a foreign language, especially when you’re still learning, forces you to become okay with failure.  Not that you accept it as the final end state, but that you realize it’s not going to kill you.  I can’t tell you how many times my teachers, let alone people on the street in China, cracked up at me when I tried to say something.  But, every single time, even the people who weren’t being paid to instruct me taught me how to say something properly.  I thanked them for their help and went on my way, perhaps having learned a new phrase.

I found out that people weren’t looking to pounce on me when I screwed up.  Sure, I got laughed at, but it wasn’t mean-spirited.  It was simply funny (sometimes really funny, depending on how badly I mangled a phrase).  We had a good chuckle, and then moved on.  I learned that you’re never going to be perfect, so why worry about it?  Just do what you’re going to do, and fix it as you go along.

5. Do something difficult. Sometimes, it’s worth doing something hard simply for the sake of doing something hard.  As my dad used to say, “It builds character”.  And, “You’ll thank me for this one day”.  And, “It’ll be over before you’re married”.  I especially hated that last one, and it wasn’t even true in the case of language school.

But, looking back, he was right.  Doing stuff that’s not a lot of fun simply because it’s the right thing to do is sometimes a good enough reason.  Because it’s difficult, you have to look for long-term benefits, rather than short-term gratifications.  Sublimating your desires is a key component in personal development, whether we want to admit it or not.

Now, doing what I did to learn a language isn’t exactly the most traditional path.  I’m not suggesting someone join the military for solely this purpose.  In fact, I think that’s a really BAD idea.

However, if you want to learn a language, and you want to do something great for someone else at the same time, here are two ways to do it:

1.  Join the Peace Corps (or some other similar organization). If you’re a member of an evangelical religion, you can volunteer to do a long-term mission trip with one of countless organizations that offer language instruction as part of their training programs.  For those of you who aren’t, the Peace Corps does a lot of good things for the poorest of the poor.  From my understanding, you don’t have much of a choice in where you end up, but if you just want to do something that will truly impact people on a personal level, I can’t think of a better way to do it than through volunteer (or very low-paid) aid work.

2.  Trade English lessons for other lessons. My wife heads up a language program with refugees, where volunteers take time to practice English conversation skills with those folks who’ve recently arrived in our country.  I’m not aware of anyone taking the next logical step from these programs and offering tutoring in English in exchange for foreign language tutoring.

However, if you’re interested in helping out folks who need a helping hand, this would work on a couple of levels.  First of all, you’re providing a valuable skill to a refugee (or anyone in this country who doesn’t know the language well) simply by doing something you already do well: talk.

Secondly, you’re allowing these folks the opportunity to serve, as well.  I’ve had the opportunity to speak with some refugees who feel as though they’re not contributing to society, and due to visa/Social Security/other issues, aren’t even allowed to do so.  Learning from them can give a feeling of pride to someone who may desperately need one.

So, if you don’t speak more than one language, I’d encourage you to pick one up.  If you’re already multi-lingual, I’d encourage you to learn another.  In our increasingly small world, you’ll be glad you did.

What are some unique methods or experiences you’ve encountered that have allowed you to learn new skills?  Are there any other ways you can think of to simultaneously learn a skill and improve other’s lives?  Share them with us in the comments…

5 thoughts on “5 Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language, and 2 Selfless Ways to Do It”

  1. This article was especially interesting to me, as I've always wanted to learn another language but never seem to have the time. What are your thoughts on language learning software (i.e. The Rosetta Stone)?

    1. Hey, Sam! Thanks for stopping by. As far as language learning software goes, it can definitely be a mixed bag. Rostetta Stone is a GREAT program to get you the basics. I personally prefer Pimsleur, but I'm a pretty good auditory learner. If you're not an auditory learner, Pimsleur is going to be tough for you. I've found that Pimsleur can take you farther along the proficiency track than can Rosetta Stone. Most of the other tools I've seen are pretty much junk, in my opinion. YMMV, of course, and neither Rosetta Stone nor Pimsleur courses are cheap.

      That being said, you'll never develop anywhere close to true proficiency in a language simply by using tools. You'll actually need to engage in conversations with people who speak the language. Learning to actually speak and understand a language is more than memorizing vocab and grammatical patterns.

      1. Thanks. Long time reader first time reply-er… I'm a youth pastor at a multi-lingual church, and it annoys me that I can't keep up with the parents of my students in conversation. I've tried to teach myself using flash cards and "Spanish for Dummies" type books to no avail. I think a more structured program would help me, so I'll give either of these programs you mentioned a try.

  2. recently at my high school i learned how to put on a switch in electrical. it was boring but hey i learned something new. and even though i could bet you that if you were to tell me to put on a switch i would have so many mistakes…all i can say is practice makes perfect

  3. As far as learning another language is concerned, can I put in a word for Esperanto?

    I suggest not only because it has become a living language, but because it has great propaedeutic values as well. Esperanto helps language learning!

    You can check this out at http://www.lernu.net

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