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Learning a new language: benefits

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This page lists benefits of learning the subject "a new language". In other words, it tries to answer the question Why should I learn "a new language"? |See all pages on the benefits of learning specific subjects

Learning a new language confers a number of benefits. The magnitude of the benefits depends on the choice of language, how well the learner learns the language, and the learner's circumstances and goals. The broad categories of benefits, including the strong ones and some more dubious ones, are listed below.

This page assumes that the language in question is neither English nor the main language of one's primary country of current or intended residence. There are obvious reasons to learn these languages, and most people reading this page would already have done so or would be on track to doing so.

Ability to passively partake of the resources generated in that language

Learning a new language allows one to partake of a number of written and oral products in the language, including:

  • Concepts best expressed or developed in that language, including metaphors, idioms, proverbs, and jargon
  • Literature: poems or prose, fiction or nonfiction
  • Music
  • Movies
  • Blogs and websites
  • Audios (podcasts) and videos

For instance, a working knowledge of Hindi might enable one to better enjoy Bollywood movies. A better understanding of French, German, or Russian might facilitate the reading of research results in these languages (particularly less recent stuff, that is obscure and escaped translation).

Ability to interact with people and participate in economies and societies centered around that language

There are many components to how knowledge of a language can help one interact with people or participate in the economy or society of a region where that language is dominant:

  • It makes it easier to consider a wider range of jobs in such a region. This can serve as an insurance against a poorly functioning economy in one's home country. For instance, Greeks who were not highly skilled learned German in order to be able to move to Germany when Greece got into economic trouble. Note that this effect is less for (non-language-specific) highly skilled workers, since English is a lingua franca for much of high-skilled work worldwide. Even high-skilled workers may benefit for the other reasons cited.
  • It facilitates smoother living in countries where the language is spoken. Knowledge of the language allows one to travel to parts of the country outside of the main metropolitan areas or areas prescribed safe for foreigners. It also allows one to understand local subtleties and nuances and might reduce the probability of getting fleeced by locals. Steven Grimm's Quora answer on the benefits of learning Mandarin Chinese elaborate on this.
  • It facilitates more free interaction with people who speak the language. Note that this benefit would generally be reaped only once your knowledge of the language becomes better than their knowledge of a common language (such as English) or your native language, so the effort needed to get to that point can be immense. Another important point here is that most of the high-skilled people you would most like to interact with would probably be comfortable communicating conceptually heavy ideas in English (perhaps even more so than in their native language, insofar as the concepts may not have translations into those languages). The main advantage of knowing the native language is therefore in day-to-day interactions with locals in the region, not so much with people from the region living in other countries (for instance, a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese might help you in China, but may be of little marginal value in interacting with software programmers in the US who hail from China). That said, the fact that you are trying to learn the language might be of symbolic significance for your friends who speak the language, even if they are comfortable with English, and this might make them like you more (they might even be willing to teach you and improve your skills). Steven Grimm's Quora answer claims that knowledge of Mandarin Chinese made him more attractive in the dating market.

Jobs that specifically rely on knowledge of multiple languages

Jobs such as those of translator and interpreter, that rely on fluency with multiple languages, pay quite well. Translation jobs can often be done flexibly on a contract basis, thus serving as additional sources of income. However, a fair amount of effort is needed to reach the skill levelwhere one can earn a lot per hour doing translation work.

General improved understanding of language

Knowledge of multiple languages can lead one to better understand the structure of languages One can think of learning a new language as taking a baby step in the direction of learning linguistics. However, one needs to make a conscious effort to explicitly understand the similarities and differences between languages to reap that benefit. There may also be more effective ways to understand the basics of linguistics.

Dubious benefits

  • It has been claimed that learning new languages can keep one mentally active: This is true, but there are many other activities that could offer comparable mental stimulation. It is true that learning a new language is simultaneously accessible to most people (a very low threshold intelligence needed) and keeps people mentally active. However, people high on intellectual achievement, conscientiousness, and skill have access to many other activities they can do that would provide similar benefits, such as learning programming.