Why Learning a Foreign Language Makes You Awesome

Unlike what my grandparents believed, speaking English slowly and loudly doesn’t quite qualify as communicating in a second language. While the prospect of learning a foreign language can be daunting, there are also many benefits.

Not only will it save you a few pennies, or help you avoid accidentally ordering a plate of unnamed innards, it can also make you a better communicator, boost your understanding of different cultures, spur on new friendships and even make you live longer.

These benefits are a result of the way that learning a new language changes your brain, and allows you access to new ideas. So if you are heading to Taiwan to teach for a year, or aiming to explore the beach-life in Central America, here are five reasons to start studying today:

1. To Improve Your Ability to Communicate

We don’t have to think about grammar or pronunciation while using our native tongue, but by practicing a second language we gain a better understanding of English in comparison. Suddenly you start to notice the order of words, different verb tenses, how to construct a sentence. Learning a second language not only helps you to better understand foreigners, but also can help you improve the clarity of your own writing and speech.

IoW learning a foreign language
Talking to a friend in the Isle of Wight.

2. To Enhance Your Creativity

Speaking a second language can be a lesson in creativity. Whilst talking to my Spanish teacher the other day, I drew a blank, not having yet learned the word for POLITE. I gambled on POLITO being the correct Spanish term, much to my teacher’s amusement. It turns out, that while POLITO is indeed a Spanish word, it actually means something more like small ice cream cone. However, while in that instance I didn’t quite get it right, practicing a foreign language forces you to experiment, something which led researchers to conclude that studying foreign languages improves your planning, cognitive flexibility, and working memory.

Incense in Hue learning a foreign language
Irrelevant photo of incense sticks dipped in brightly coloured dye in Hue, Vietnam

3. To Help You Listen More Attentively

Bilingual individuals are better at picking up on what a particular person is saying, even in conditions that are normally distracting. This can lead to more fulfilling travel experiences as it could allow you to better absorb tips that are shared by fellow travellers, even in busy bars, or pay attention to your partner at breakfast while mentally calculating if you have enough foreign currency to actually pay for the meal…

Luke listening learning a foreign language
Half-listening to my partner over breakfast.

4. To Be Healthy, Wealthy and Popular

On average, Native English speakers who also speak fluent Spanish, earn 4% more every year and are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease four years later than monolinguals. Different languages have different financial rewards, with more complicated and less commonly spoken languages translating into better salaries for those that speak them. As an expat, learning the language of the country that you are living in is by far the best way to help you make friends with the locals, and to make the most of your stay away from home.

river taiwan learning a foreign language
A day out at the river with our Taiwanese language exchange, Audrey, and her family.

5. To Make More Logical Decisions

In an experiment discussed on FreakonomicsRadio, one researcher played a game with his participants to determine their level of logical decision making. He would give the participant $5, and allow them to gamble on the toss of a coin, with an incorrect gamble losing them $1 and a correct guess netting them $2. Alternatively, the participant could choose not to make a guess, and so not lose anything. On average, those that did the experiment in their native tongue took less risks than those who did the experiment in their second language – even though logically it makes more sense to gamble, as in this experiment the odds are always in the gamblers favour. Those big decisions could be made more logically if you can consider them in second language.

rubik's cube learning a foreign language
Me having just solved a rubik’s cube.

While there are many benefits to your mind from learning a new language, perhaps the most important benefit is the message that you give to non-native English speakers by learning their native language. It shows that you value their culture, have invested time and serious effort into learning more about them, and that you have an open-minded, global perspective, that not all travellers are equipped with.

Luke Nicholson

Luke is Charlie's partner and long-term travel companion. Though currently working as an online marketer, Luke is also a CELTA qualified ESL teacher, experienced house sitter and avid video gamer. He loves howler monkeys too.

27 thoughts to “Why Learning a Foreign Language Makes You Awesome”

  1. An excellent post, Charlie! Though I’m not fluent in a second language, I’ve attempted to learn several, including Spanish, French and Chinese. The locals definitely appreciate when you try to use their language and the experience can be so rewarding! I can still remember my feeling of triumph when I was able to ask for directions in Madrid – and then understand the answer!

    1. Thanks, Heather! My partner wrote it, as he’s getting very into learning Spanish online (and with his language exchange) at the moment. We learned Chinese the whole year we were living in Taiwan, but really we only ever managed coffee shop Mandarin (as we call it). It feels like you can progress much faster learning a European language when your first language is also European. You’re right, it really is rewarding! It’s amazing that you’ve tried to learn so many :)

  2. While I have never solved a rubix cube, I do speak fluent(ish) Spanish and I agree with everything you’ve said and cannot wait to start cashing in on my 4% extra income. (lol maybe I should stop travel writing?!?!)

    1. I have also never solved a rubix cube! How many languages do you speak? Just English and Spanish? I’m only just getting started with Spanish, and I have to say, it is so much easier than both French and, of course, Mandarin.

      Ahaha, because of travel writings 0% salary irrelevant of how many languages you speak…! :)

  3. A great post Charlie! Sadly I really struggle with languages (English included). I took both Spanish and French in school and have retained very little. Perhaps I just need to immerse myself in the language and force my brain to adapt :)

    1. I also struggle with languages and am always disheartened that my boyfriend picks them up so much faster than I do! I do think it was much easier learning a language whilst living in that country, like I did with Mandarin in Taiwan. We’re about to move to Costa Rica, so we’ll see how it goes with Spanish as well…!

  4. This is so true! Learning a foreign language DOES make you awesome :) Some really interesting facts and studies here that I’d never come across. Personally I feel point number 2 and 3 are very true. Since starting to learn French I feel I’m more present in the conversations I’m having, even in English (probably because I’m so used to try and understand what people are saying!) and my mind feels more flexible which helps with creativity. I’d add a sixth reason to start learning a language – it makes you more confident, since you feel more able to handle new situations and you get over the fear of looking a stupid and just go for it, which is really liberating.

    1. I agree! It makes you feel more confident to speak and learn new words as you go along…you use what you KNOW to guess at what you don’t know….and sometimes you get it right the first time…and other times it’s funny if you don’t get it right and you learn something new! :) I teach ESL as well as French and it’s great to be able to say…”like the French word…” when teaching a similar word in English.

    2. Thanks for the comment, Charlie. Yes, it sure does! It’s great that learning French is helping with those things :) That’s a good one! It does make you more confident I’m sure, although I was always very shy when speaking Chinese, but it’s definitely good for personal growth.

  5. Great post! Succinct, informative, and the visuals are eye-catching. :) It’s also fun to consider what you could call the anthropological benefits of learning a second language–basically, it seems to make you a better, more thoughtful, more considerate person. Language is culture, and learning a second one suddenly opens you up to different sociocultural perspectives, different ways of seeing life–and of reacting to it.

    One small correction: the term “mono-linguists” should be “monolinguals”. A linguist is a person who has had some formal training in linguistics, like a university degree or whatnot, whereas a bilingual or a multilingual (or a polyglot!) is a person who speaks multiple languages (and therefore a monolingual, a person who speaks only one).

    Keep up all this lovely content!

    1. Thanks for the compliments and for reading, Sienna :) I think that you’re right about the anthrpological benefits too. When learning Chinese, I definitely felt like I personally grew in those areas.

      Oh thanks for the correction, I’ll change it now! Hadn’t realised, thanks for the tip!

      Thank you!!

  6. Great Post! I have yet to become bilingual but I am determined to do so and then to press on to trilingual, quad-lingual, polyglot status! I find that seriously learning a language has made me more productive and realize how much time in the day I really have when I’m actually trying.

    Thanks for the motivation! On to study some more Japanese :)

    1. Excellent goals! Let me know how your language learning goes! I’m keen to improve my Spanish but it’s slow progress at the moment. That’s a very good point, I also feel that language learning has made me more productive.

      Good luck with the languages, Phillip! :)

  7. Nice post! I wish we had more language options whole schooling. Picking up new language without being in the said country can be quite
    daunting. But being an Indian I can sure speak 4 and understand 6 languages. Of which 5 are native Indian languages

    1. Thanks for the comment, Deesksha. Yes, you’re right. I struggled to learn a foreign language at school, and definitely found it easier when living in the country. Wow, that’s fantastic! Do you think it’s easier to learn a foreign language because you can speak/understand so many already?

  8. I agree with you! I’ve been living in Brazil the past 10 months and now speak fluent Portuguese. It’s made me realize a lot about the English language, and everyone seems to be super impressed since it’s not a commonly spoken language in the states. I’m fluent, but I know there’s always more to learn.

  9. Great post, Charlie! Speaking another language opens so many doors.

    Sometimes I am envious of my husband! He is trilingual – fluent in Taiwanese, Chinese, and English. I long for the day that I am completely fluent in Chinese, but those Chinese characters seem to make it an ongoing, never-ending task!! One day, someday, hopefully!!

  10. Great post, Luke! I love the “irrelevant picture of incense sticks”, haha.

    I agree 100% with what you said. Also, one of the most important reasons for me is a foreign language enriches your whole travel experience. i regretted not knowing a bit of Chinese when I traveled to Taiwan. I can’t even properly thank the people who helped me on the streets. But next time I will be better prepared :D
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