We constantly hear that the French are not good at learning foreign languages. Sometimes we’re told that it’s because we love our own language more than any other, because our language is so complicated to master that we have no “room” for others, or that the territorial occupation of France was so extensive that it isn’t necessary to learn foreign languages, etc.
So, what are the reasons for learning a foreign language? Do we really need to learn other languages? What are the real virtues of learning foreign languages?
1. Travel easily
“With languages, you are at home anywhere”
Edmund de Waal
Travelling in a foreign country with ease, understanding instructions, communicating with people you meet, not missing out on a guided tour and even understanding a restaurant’s menu… there is no doubt that learning a foreign language – or better still, mastering several of them – is like having a pass to the world!
2…. and meet new people!
“Language is the roadmap of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going”
Rita Mae Brown
When meeting new people in a foreign country, speaking their language is an obvious facilitator. And they might even enjoy your little “Frenchy” accent!
When foreigners come to France and visit Paris, we can’t advise enough that they learn at least a few words of our language (French, foreign language) to ensure a more pleasant and enriching experience, can we?
3. Open your mind to the culture of the country
“Studying another language is not only about learning other words for the same things, but also about learning another way of thinking about those things”
Learning a new language naturally leads to increased interest in the culture surrounding the language. Through language, we learn a whole new way of thinking and of looking at the world from the perspective of native speakers in that part of the world. We learn how to live differently, with new traditions, new food, and so much more.
4. Leave behind preconceived notions
“He who learns the language of a people will have no need to fear the people”
Fears, preconceived notions, and stereotypes can only survive in ignorance. Through learning a language, and thus a culture, your vision of the country changes and becomes more refined and realistic.
Teaching a second language to children from primary school onwards, even in kindergarten, tends to improve their tolerance towards “foreigners” and thus facilitates their development in a globalised society.
5. Build patience
Learning a second foreign language takes time. It is an intellectual exercise that helps you build patience and perseverance, two characteristics that are increasingly rare (and yet appreciated) in a society that seeks to live in “real time”.
6. A professional advantage
Mastery of one or more modern languages is an undeniable advantage when looking for a job. Mastering French and English or French and Spanish or French and German is a great gateway to a career across Europe.
For professionals, being able to speak, or even read and write, in another language offers a substantially larger potential market for job searches.
Of course, once you’re in the company, reading in a foreign language (in particular English) allows you to benefit from much more extensive library of resources to develop your professional skills and knowledge, and even enables you to bring a differentiating vision to your clients.
7. Develop your cognitive abilities
Language learning seems to improve our cognitive health (flexibility, intellectual speed, better analytical capacity).
In particular, a recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience, which looked at bilingualism, showed greater intellectual flexibility, enabling bilingual people to perform cognitive tasks more quickly and easily than others.
8. Delay ageing
According to an empirical study in the scientific journal Annals of Neurology, older people who speak one or more foreign languages have better cognitive health (intelligence, reading ability, alertness) than others.
Another American study conducted on 450 people, half of whom had been bilingual since childhood, seems to show that the latter develop Alzheimer’s symptoms on average four or five years later than the others.
In schools, teaching a foreign language to children facilitates learning a second foreign language, in addition to their native tongue, and it’s becoming a priority for the French Ministry of Education. And according to all the evidence, this is a good thing for their social and, surprisingly, even their physiological development.
So does learning foreign languages make us better?
Linguists, translators-interpreters, language lovers, travellers and culture lovers will probably answer with a resounding yes!
But as the author of an article on the website mondelangues.fr all polyglots are far from being humanists or benevolent and altruistic characters: the high Nazi dignitary Göbbels spoke French fluently, Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer, mastered a good ten languages, etc.
No doubt an interest in languages often reveals an interest in others, their cultures and thus more humanistic personalities. But beware of broad generalizations, because they can never be applied systematically!