Why You Should Learn a Second Language Now More Than Ever
The economic value of a second language, how to reprogramme your risk-averse brain, and avoid ‘cognitive traps’
There are over 6,000 languages in the world, but, for many of us at least, it can seem as if there’s only one — English — the lingua franca of the world. There are around 1.5 billion English speakers in the world, making it the most widely understood language in the world according to most sources, though only around 360 million of these people are native English speakers, with the rest speaking English as a second, or even third, language.
Only around 20% of Americans speak a second language, compared with an estimated 56% of Europeans — who generally speaking, learn English. Lest they feel left out though, it’s estimated that only around 38% of the UK speaks a second language, the lowest in Europe, while around 20% of Australians speak a second language at home.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why so few native English speakers bother to learn a second language. Why would they? Why bother to invest the time and money when everyone understands you anyway? We imagine that fumbling our way through a menu in the resort is as much effort as we should invest in the business of learning a second language.
Let’s first consider one of the most overlooked aspects of language learning — their economic value. The Economist has calculated that over 40 years, your average American college-educated professional, who speaks a second language, earning $45,000 per year, will earn over a 40-year career (when accounting for compound interest) as much as $128,000 more than a monolingual individual.
This incredible statistic should be enough to motivate anyone, but it’s important to take into consideration other factors, namely the so-called ‘supply and demand’ of languages. The above figures are based on fluency in German, with Spanish being ‘worth’ around $51,000 and French $77,000. This has as much to do with the economic prosperity of the country of the second language, as it does with the number of speakers in your own country. In short, Germany has a larger economy than Spain and fewer Americans speak German as opposed to Spanish, making it more valuable. Simple supply and demand economics.
This method has allowed countries like those in Scandinavia to target their resources towards languages, investing in well-trained teachers and a culture that supports language learning as a way of negating their relative isolation and reach international markets. Contrast this with the UK, where it has been calculated that their inability to foster a culture of language-learning — one researcher concluded — cost the economy around $48 billion, or 3.5% of their entire GDP at the time of the study.
Language in Children & Adults
Children learn languages faster than adults, that much has been proven, but many of the skills mastered by bilingual or multilingual children can also be utilised by adults. Firstly, it’s important to dispel the myth that learning a second language will inhibit a child’s native language. No credible study supports this hypothesis today, and while small children will often mix both languages words and syntax together, these traits disappear as they age, and many gain a level fluency that rivals adults learning a second language by their toddlers.
Later in life, these children have been shown to prove better at executive function — the prioritising, planning and management of complex tasks and switching between them — than their monolingual counterparts of the same age even when taking into consideration socio-economic factors too. It’s also been shown to have the more traditional benefits associated with language learning, broadening their cultural perspective, which in turn gives them greater opportunities to study abroad and learn from a more diverse range of sources.
But there are still great benefits for those who learn a language as teens or adults. Bilingual and multilingual students consistently outperform their monolingual peers in exams. More importantly, however, some studies have demonstrated that when individuals are taught a second language and told to solve problems and think about them in that language, they are less likely to fall into so-called cognitive traps.
Thinking about a problem in a foreign language was shown to help escape decision-making biases, particularly ones involving risk.
Almost all of us are abysmal at assessing risk in a meaningful way, hence why we’re more afraid of sharks and planes than vending machines and cars despite statical data demonstrating the latter are far more deadly than the former. While the phenomenon of ‘risk assessing in a second language’ isn’t well understood, there are real, measurable benefits from being able to assess risk in a more meaningful way.
Not only can a second language enrich our wallets and allow us to imbed ourselves in cultures outside our own, but it can also help preserve our own cultures. Of the around 6,000 known languages in the world, 10% are extinct, with 33% endangered. Much is this is thanks to the post-colonial legacy of the West and combating this worrying trend allows us to preserve many cultures that could otherwise be lost.
We should never underestimate the power of language in cultural identity. For example, in the 1990s, numerous pieces of legislation were passed in Wales that guaranteed the status of the Welsh language, part of the larger devolution of powers in the UK at the time. The language had become a minority in Wales itself but is now taught in schools and displayed proudly on road signs and infrastructure.
And this is just one example of language preserving cultural identity. In both Northern Ireland and the Republic Ireland, around 1.8 million people reported being able to speak the Irish language (known as Gaelic in English, not to be confused with the Gaelic spoken in Scotland — a related but distinct language), even though around the world 70 million people claim Irish descent. Perhaps a greater knowledge of the Gaelic language would help many people connect with the culture of their ancestors from the not-so-distant past.
A Rude Awakening
Countries like the UK and USA have become increasingly isolationist in recent years, part of a worrying worldwide trend of anti-globalisation. Proponents of this trend argue that they are preserving their culture from dangerous outside influences. The very isolationism and dismissiveness of other cultures and languages may lead to further decline of linguistic diversity in these countries, ironically further increasing the value a second language has. But their biggest mistake is believing that the world is static.
Consider this, Latin was once one of the most spoken languages in the world, as one of the main languages of the Romans. Now, Latin is a dead language, meaning there are no native speakers anymore, and it is relegated to annals of history to be studied by historians and linguists, myself among them.
It is unlikely that English, as we know it, will become a dead language any time soon but trying to stop the world from changing, is akin to burying your head in the sand. Latin is all but gone, and English may have had its day in the sun. Mandarin, Farsi and Hindi (one of the many languages of India) are the languages of the future.
Countries like India have seen unprecedented economic growth, in large part to having a lot of people with knowledge of English, but that trend may soon reverse. China, India and the Middle East, these are the markets of the future. We in English speaking countries need to diversify our language economy to a more ‘Scandinavian model’ if we are to share in the economic prosperity of these countries and regions, or risk being left behind.
The issue begins in schools. Many of us are taught subjects that will in reality have little bearing on our lives. Resources are being directed away from language learning in English speaking countries in favour of other ‘more economically valuable subjects’. Many parents are combating this by teaching their children ‘languages with real value’, the most popular being Mandarin.
English is a beautiful, complex and occasionally frustrating language in its own right, but it should not be the only language many of us know. The misconception that English will forever ‘rule the linguistic waves’ as it were is harming not only our economies and our job prospects, but our understanding of other cultures and perhaps even parts of our heritage as people. The best skill we can teach our children, both economically and socially speaking, is a second language, a skill they will no doubt thank us for as the world continues to diversify.
Yet more reasons to learn a second language.