5 Reasons Americans Should Learn More Languages

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Unlike Europeans, a new study found that Americans aren’t thrilled or required to learn foreign languages. Here are five reasons why that should change.
Unlike Europeans, a new study found that Americans aren’t thrilled or required to learn foreign languages. Here are five reasons why that should change.

According to a new study from Pew Research Center, Americans still aren’t all that thrilled (or required) to learn a foreign language, especially when compared to their multilingual European counterparts.

Most European countries — with the exceptions of Ireland and Scotland — require the study of at least one foreign language, while many nations require the study of second foreign language as well. (Gaelic isn’t considered a foreign language in Ireland.) In the United States, languages aren’t pushed at the national level, and the requirements to learn a foreign language (or not) vary widely from state to state, which in turn means many American only speak one language fluently … and sometimes even struggle with that one.

In case you need a bit of a kick onto the foreign language path, here are five very good reason Americans should learn more languages.

Pew Research Cnter
(Pew Research Center graphic)

1. Better Brains

Study after study shows that acquiring different languages significantly boosts brainpower. Learning vocab and grammar rules improves memory, mathematical skills and exercises the brain (use it or lose it) by forcing it to look for new patterns in languages, catalog grammar exceptions, relate language and foreign idioms to historical, geopolitical and sociocultural trends and solve communication problems stemming from linguistic and cultural differences. So the next time someone says, “Look at the big brain on Becky,” you just might be able to chalk Becky’s big brains up to the fact that she’s a serious polyglot.

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2. Make Friends

This one is pretty obvious. If you can speak another languages, you can talk to people in that language and get to know them. Even if you aren’t fluent yet and are just getting by, people often appreciate the effort you’ve made — even if they laugh at some of your novice mistakes on occasion. Your interest in their language and culture won’t go unnoticed, and all of that linguistics goodwill can go a long way when making new friends.

3. Watch Enemies

It’s true. Lots of people out there want to do you in, and they’re not planning their nefarious activities in Standard American English. The military even fired Defense Language Institute (DLI) Arabic translators as well as specialists in other languages in the past under the “don’t ask don’t tell” regime — despite the fact that the intelligence community was (and still is) in desperate need of foreign language experts. If a second or third language were common for Americans to know, it’d be a lot easier for the powers that be to enlist help (regardless of sexual orientation) in their efforts to keep an eye on folks with murderous intentions in their hearts.

Read more: In a Dick Move, America Fails Afghan Interpreters Who Saved Its Soldiers

4. Keep Alzheimer’s and Dementia at Bay

Yep, knowing and learning different languages can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. While the research doesn’t suggest bilingualism can stop these debilitating conditions, people who are multilingual can look forward to an extra four years or so without dementia or Alzheimer’s when stacked up against people who are only monolingual. By working the linguistic cognitive functions of the brain, the average age of Alzheimer’s onset (early 70s) can be knocked back to the late 70s. And that’s nothing to scoff at.

5. Become a Super Sleuth

If you want to know what’s going on around you, you have to pay attention to the clues. By knowing more than one language, you would have already trained your brain to watch out for details a monolingual gal or guy might have missed. Language training forces the mind to sift through information from a variety of angles, as well as false friends (words that sound familiar, but aren’t like, like “embarazada” in Spanish, which means “pregnant” not “embarrassed”), murky information and ways of thinking spanning different geographical regions and cultural traditions. Honing these skills translates into a more agile and perceptive brain, which makes it a lot harder for someone who’s multilingual to be duped.

Want to be a private detective (even if just helping a friend find a lost wallet)? You’ll need a more flexible mind, which is why you’ll want to learn a foreign language or two before you become the Sherlock Holmes — or if you’re more accident prone, the Inspector Clouseau — of your neighborhood.

Carl Pettit is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.

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