“Why should I bother learning a second language when everyone already speaks English?”
We get this question all the time.
And while it’s true that over 330 million people speak English as their first language, this is actually relatively small when compared with the 982 million native Chinese speakers.
However, once you’ve factored in the 1.5 billion people that speak English as a second language… it’s easy to see where the question comes from.
I was sitting at a networking event recently in Sweden where people from all over the world were meeting each other for the first time. It didn’t feel weird at all that we were all speaking in English. After all, it’s the lingua franca, right? Especially in Europe. People from Brazil, Italy, France, Germany, China, and Iceland were all using English to speak to one another.
Pretty amazing, right?
But does that mean that as a native English speaker, my work here is done? I already know the common denominator language, so I can sit back and relax while everyone else tries to learn my language, right?
Because here’s the thing.
Not everyone speaks English.
English is the third most widely spoken language. Not the first.
Yes, a large portion of countries speak English, whether that means a majority or minority of the population speak it.
But take a look at this map. Everywhere colored beige is where people don’t tend to speak English as a second language:
By Sulez raz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47648162
You want to be able to travel the world not just the English speaking world, right?
Don’t let language limit you. Here’s why you should consider learning even just the basic sounds, words, and phrases of your target language:
1. A little language takes you a long way
We get it. Not everyone approaches languages with a “BRING IT ON!” attitude. The actual learning process isn’t always enjoyable, and sometimes you feel like you want to bang your head against a brick wall.
But you don’t need to be fluent in a language in order to get by.
There are sounds, words, and phrases that you’ll use over and over again in your native tongue without realizing it.
The basics, such as greeting someone, asking a question, getting directions or ordering at a restaurant only require you to know a handful of words and phrases. Even if you’re not planning on becoming fluent, picking up the elemental sounds of a language and practicing the key phrases will help you immensely. After all, every little bit helps – and 9 times out of 10, a native speaker will appreciate the effort and try and give you a hand if you get stuck.
2. Learning a language makes your brain bigger
Scientists in Sweden conducted a study, whereby they took two control groups of young adults and had them study hard for three months. The first group learned a language at an intensive pace, whereas the second group studied a wide range of academic topics but not language.
By the end of the three months, they compared the brain sizes of the two groups. The group that had focussed on general studying saw no change in the structure of their brains. However, the group that studied languages had actually managed to grow their brains.
Brain growth sounds pretty good to me.
3. It gives you the opportunity to live and work somewhere else
Let’s taken Sweden as an example. Sweden is one of the countries where the majority of the population speaks English as a second language. Everywhere I go, I’m pretty much guaranteed that the people around me can speak English (which is good because my Swedish is currently very basic.)
However, if I want to work in Sweden, I need to be able to speak Swedish fluently. Every level of job requires a near-native command of Swedish. Obviously. Because Swedish is the official language of Sweden.
So even if you move abroad to an English speaking majority, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to find English-only jobs. In fact, it probably means you’re already on the back foot. Because you know 50% fewer languages than the rest of the population.
4. You’ll settle in more quickly
Landing in a new country can feel overwhelming. You have to get to grips with a new culture, perhaps a different transport system. You have to find your way around, figure out where’s good to eat, what to see etc etc.
It’s made all the more bewildering if you have no idea what’s going on around you.
When everyone is speaking a different language, it’s like there’s a whole world of closed doors. You don’t know whether the people next to you are discussing the weather or the color of your shoes. It makes you feel isolated from the hubbub that is happening around you.
However, once you start to pick up the recurring sounds in the language, and notice the patterns, these doors creak open. The lady on the bus has lost her favorite top and is asking her sister whether she borrowed it again. The man in front of you in line for the post office is late for his appointment.
You first recognize the sounds, and then the meaning of the sounds. And once that happens, you’re able to relate to the people around you a lot better. You realize the things people talk about here are no different from what they talk about where you’re from. Suddenly, you don’t feel quite so far away from home.
5. It makes it easier to bond with people
Following on from that, speaking another language allows you to bond with people.
You have a lot better chance of winning someone over if you’re making the effort to speak to them in their language, rather than just barking at them in English.
Now obviously we’re all going to have to pass through the frustrating stage, where communication is tough. It’s a right of passage all language learners must get their badge for. But what comes out of that is being able to have a normal conversation with someone in their own language.
And there’s no better way to bond with someone than that.
6. You get treated like a local
This has a wide range of benefits – it’s like joining an exclusive members club. Haggling? You’ll probably get a better price. Made a mistake with something? Chances are, they’ll be more lenient with you.
Nothing screams ‘tourist’ more than someone walking around speaking loudly in English.
Speak the language, however, and you’re more likely to get treated as a local – someone who knows the fair price and therefore can’t be tricked as easily. (Especially if you pronounce the sounds with the local accent).
It also means you’ll gain access to more insider intel. Crucial information, like “don’t go to that bar past 8pm, they charge more” or “order pizza from here, not there” that tourists just don’t have access to.
Because why give up your trade secrets for someone not willing to spend a little time with your language?
7. You learn things about yourself
One of the things I’ve loved most about learning language is that it’s helped me to understand myself better. For example, I know that it doesn’t help me to sit and read in a language, because I need to sense-check my internal pronunciation. I need to listen to the sounds of a language and practice them over and over before I really feel comfortable with them.
A lot of people approach language as a self-improvement exercise, but it can be approached as a self-care exercise as well. You’re taking some time out of your day to spend on yourself, just you and your target language. It stimulates your brain, makes you think outside of the box and pushes you outside of your comfort zone.
All of those things are good in my book.
8. You’ll be joining a community of people wanting to help
Language learners are all in the same boat – we all have good days and bad days with language.
Most of us will have gotten rusty at some point, and dipped in and out. No one is perfect, but the language learning community is enthusiastic and, most importantly – helpful!
There’s a huge wealth of information online about how to hack the language learning process and so many free resources you won’t know where to begin.
If you’re learning Spanish, French, German, or Portuguese, I suggest downloading our free audio-PDF guides to help you practice all of the sounds in your target language.
We’re a nice bunch, really. Come on in!