5 Reasons You Should Learn a Second Language

by Matt | 1 Year Sabbatical on November 18, 2010

5 Reasons to Learn a LanguageIf you are making plans to spend time in a foreign country where they speak a language different from your own you should really consider learning that language.  I’m going to give you 5 reasons why I think it is important as well as some tips and resources on how to learn a second language.

When I first traveled to Indonesia I couldn’t speak the language beyond the typical greetings of “Hello” and “How are you?”  My fiancée’s parents did not speak any English so communicating with them went through my fiancée.  It made for some awkward moments.  I remember one time going to the store with my father-in-law, just the two of us.  The trip started off with us both testing our limited language skills and then progressed to complete silence with a few uncomfortable smiles thrown in and an occasional finger point at something interesting.  We were like a couple of traveling mimes. Imagine how much more exciting and enjoyable this time would have been for both of us had I spoken the native language.  This brings us to reason #1 on why to learn a foreign language.

          1) Connect with the locals and the local culture

When you are able to speak the local language you will more easily and readily connect with the locals.  They will appreciate that you made an effort to learn their language and they will be very proud to speak with you.  You’ll also have a better understanding of the context of that culture and be able to understand it on its own terms and not just your own preconceived notions.  Speaking the language is a way to bridge the gap and successfully engage the people around you.  It’s a great way to garner and show respect for your hosts.

There are times when you don’t want to rely on someone else for translating.  You want to exert some independence.  One time I wanted to buy some cough medicine.  My in-laws wanted to drive me to the pharmacy and buy it for me but I wanted to do this by myself so I learned the phrases I needed in order to get what I wanted and proceeded to walk to the local pharmacy.  When I entered the store I went to the counter and was greeted by the storekeeper.  Speaking in Indonesian I told her that I wanted to buy cough medicine.  She promptly replied in Indonesian with something I did not understand at all.  I foolishly hadn’t planned for this.  I tried out my Indonesian phrase again and this time received a few giggles.  By this time a man had entered and offered to help as he spoke a little English.  Through a combination of English and my limited Indonesian I was able to purchase exactly what I came for.

I felt really excited about this and I know that the storekeeper and helpful man were much friendlier with me because I had made the effort to try and speak the language.  These interactions will enhance your travel experience and that is a very good thing.

          2) Eliminate the language barrier you will face

Imagine how much easier it will be to get around, order food, buy clothing, and get a hotel room when you can speak the native language.  One of the things that just drove me absolutely nuts was listening to all the conversations going on around me and not understanding a single word.  It’s easy to develop a complex.  What are they talking about?  They just said something and then looked at me.  Are they talking about me?  Yes, they probably are talking about you and trying to figure out why you didn’t learn their language.  But if you can speak and understand the language then you can listen in on all the juicy gossip.

          3) Increase your chance of getting a job or creating work opportunities

Taking a sabbatical and long term travel is not cheap.  Sure you can go ultra-low budget and get by but not everyone wants to go that route.  So sometimes one needs to get a job or maybe do some consulting work locally.  Imagine how much easier this will be if you can speak the native language fluently.   Want to teach English overseas?  I guarantee you that being able to speak the local language as well will place you well ahead of other candidates.  Want to make some business contacts for when you return home?  Think about how speaking their language will be a memorable experience that they won’t forget after you depart.

          4) Gain a better understanding of yourself

On the flip side of learning a language to understand another culture is learning more about yourself and your own culture.  This is because when you learn another language it gives you the opportunity to view your own culture from another perspective.  This again affords you the ability to expand your experience and provides you with a more enriching self-awareness and appreciation.  Learning a language also teaches us about other cultures and that in turn teaches us more about ourselves.  How do we really view the world?

          5) Sense of accomplishment

Hey, this is a big one.  Imagine being able to tell people that you speak two or more languages.  It’s a big accomplishment.  How many people do you know speak two languages?  OK, I know quite a few but that’s because I married into a different culture, but still learning to speak Indonesian is going to be a huge accomplishment for me and something that I will be really proud of.  And you will too.

It Takes Effort

I’ve been married now for 9 years to a wonderful woman who speaks English as a second language.  Her first language is Indonesian.  One would think that after 9 years of being together I would speak fluent Indonesian but the sad truth of the matter is I don’t.  Sure I can speak a few words and sentences but I am far from being fluent.

Of course I have no one to blame but myself.  I didn’t make a true concerted effort to learn the language.  The times when I was in Indonesia (which were perfect opportunities to immerse myself in the language) I resorted to using English as a crutch.

But now as we plan and prepare to spend a year or more in Indonesia I’m starting to become painfully aware how important it will be to speak the language.  The 5 reasons above should have opened your eyes to some of the benefits of learning a second language.  Now we’re 10 months away from departure and I am scrambling to cram when I should have spent every day for the past 9 years slowly learning.

Everyone Learns Differently

Everyone has their own way of learning and finding what that is will be the key to success.  My friend Ryan over at Ryan Goes Abroad wrote a great post about 5 Ways You Are Slowing Your Progress To Fluency.  It’s a good read so check it out.

Go online and search for programs in the language you want to learn.  I discovered Learning Indonesianwhich produces high quality podcasts from a native Indonesian speaker.  They offer 48 free podcasts that you can download as well as more advanced paid programs.  There may be similar programs in the language that you want to learn.  The cool thing about podcasts is that you can put them on your phone or iPod and listen to them anywhere when you have a few minutes.

Another great site I found is Benny Lewis’s Fluent in 3 Months.  Benny’s site offers up a wealth of tips and unconventional learning techniques for learning any language.  If you are really serious about learning a language, bookmark Benny’s site.

I’ve tried programs like Pimsleur, created elaborate flashcards and purchased several books and CD’s but they didn’t really work for me or motivate me to learn.  Everyone learns differently though so they may work for you so don’t count them out.

It’s Totally Up To You

Finally, learning a second language is totally up to you.  As I have demonstrated through my 9 years of not being able to speak my wife’s language, if you don’t put the effort and time into learning you won’t pick it up.  And that goes for anything you want to accomplish in life.  Don’t be like I was.  Dedicate the time, make the effort and find a system that works well for you.  Your travels or sabbatical will be just that much more of an enjoyable and enriching experience.   Success is totally in your hands.

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura Mogg November 18, 2010 at 2:17 am

Wow really inspiring, I look forward to reading more about the build up to your trip and, of course, once you actually get there!

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matt November 18, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Thanks Laura! I’m looking forward to sharing the adventures both before departure and after departure. When we started this we really had no idea how much would be involved in planning for a 1 year sabbatical. So many things to think about. Hopefully I can document the planning process so others can have a point of reference. Thanks for commenting!

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Amanda November 18, 2010 at 3:03 am

All the reasons you give for learning a second language are great — I couldn’t agree more!

I’ve never lived abroad in a country where the locals didn’t speak English, so I’ve never run into the same barriers you have. But I still wish I was fluent in another language. I took German classes through high school and college, but, without practical application, it really is pretty useless. Which is sad.

I wish the U.S. required kids to take a second language starting early — like in elementary school. I really think it would benefit a lot of people to be able to communicate in another language.
Amanda recently posted..How to Spend 36 Hours in Sydney

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matt November 18, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Hi Amanda! Guten tag! I too took German in high school and didn’t learn a thing. We spent all our time translating the song 99 Luftballons and didn’t learn much beyond that. You make a really good point though that without a practical application it may be even more difficult to pick up a second language. I’ve been trying to get my wife to spend more time teaching Indonesian to our kids as their ages are perfect for them to pick it up much easier than when they are older. Here in Eugene there are a few immersion schools including Spanish, French and Japanese. My niece and nephew actually attended the Spanish immersion school and learned to speak Spanish which my nephew was able to use when he took a school trip to Panama this last year. So I am with you on requiring kids to learn a second language early on.

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Gillian November 18, 2010 at 11:07 am

Oh, how I wish I could speak another language! I was put to shame while traveling…meeting people living in other places that could speak to me in my native tongue, and other travelers who could speak 2, 3, 4, or 5 other languages. Amazing. We learned some Spanish in S.America and I loved the process…we are trying to keep it up and my goal is to one day be fluent! It does make the experience so much richer. Good luck with Indonesian!
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matt November 18, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Hi Gillian! I remember when my wife and I were at the train station in Yogyakarta Indonesia and there was another foreigner there sitting a few benches away. He started speaking in Indonesian to some friends and my wife was so impressed because he apparently was very fluent and in fact had no accent. Another time in Bandung there was this little American kid who was speaking so quickly in Indonesian. I was just amazed and like you said “put to shame” that I couldn’t speak the local language. One would think that those two experiences would have motivated me to start studying and practicing but it didn’t. I’ll probably end up learning the most by immersing myself in the language and culture after we move. Did you find that while you were in a Spanish speaking country you picked up a lot of the language quickly?

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Gillian November 18, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Absolutely! It’s much faster to learn through immersion. I tried harder, and did better, when I knew the other person could not speak english. I knew I had to muddle through it (and they had to put up with it) – there was no other way. It’s hard but very rewarding…just don’t resort to English…Have fun!
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matt November 18, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Looking back on our last trip to Indonesia when we spent 2 months there I realize that I had wasted the perfect opportunity to totally immerse myself in the language. We’ve tried an “immersion policy” here at home where we attempt to speak only Indonesian while at home and it resulted in total frustration for all parties. Maybe we should give it another try.

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Gillian November 18, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Ahhh, that’s the problem! J and I tried this too but frustration abounded. Once you’re there, and have to talk to people you don’t know, that’s when the real learning will begin. Hee Hee..
Gillian recently posted..OneGiantStep Changes It Up

Ryan November 18, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Matt- Thanks for the mention! You list a lot of good reasons here, especially the sense of accomplishment. One of things I am realizing is just how much work it is to learn a new language. It is really one big giant project that you have to keep poking away at. But once you get to the conversational level, I can sense it will be grand… The philosopher Kierkegaard somewhere says that there is scarcely a better way of getting outside yourself than learning a foreign language. Good experiences to look forward to!
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matt November 18, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Hey Ryan! I totally know where you are coming from regarding the work involved in learning a new language. This is really the main reason why I haven’t picked up Indonesian. I just haven’t dedicated the time necessary to spend learning and practicing. For me I need some kind of repetition in order for it to get burned into my brain and that requires spending time daily which is something I haven’t done. I’ll go through periods where I listen to the podcasts everyday and then something will come up and I’ll drop it for months and by that time what I had learned is already stagnant. It does get easier to pick up again as time goes on however. I’m sure what you have learned so far will pay off huge for you during your trip and time in Columbia.

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Rusa November 18, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Bagaimana kabarmu? 🙂

I guess I am one of the lucky one who can speak more than one language fluently, being Indonesian Chinese that learn English. (and counting the variant of Chinese language, I can speak five languages!)

Boasting aside, I want to comment especially on learning culture from language. One of the easiest way to see culture from language is from the idioms and sayings. From there we can see values in that particular culture. From the things, animal or anything in the idioms, we also can see the common thing they encounter at the time when the idioms were created/popularized.

Oh, and good luck in your Indonesian learning. I know the grammar structure can be daunting at first, but when you get the hang of it, it will be much easier.


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matt November 18, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Halo Rusa! Apa kabar? Wow!! You can speak 5 languages? Incredible! I’ve always been in awe of people who are able to learn multiple languages. I’m really looking forward to learning and experiencing more of the Indonesian culture and know that being able to speak the language will make that so much more enriching. The grammar structure of Indonesian has been challenging. I do like that there are no tenses. The biggest challenge has been word order. For example in English we would say fried rice but in Indonesian it is reversed nasi goreng (rice fried). Thanks so much for your comment and your insight into language and culture.

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Betsy Talbot November 19, 2010 at 12:26 am

Hi, Matt. We are making progress on our Spanish, but it is still hard (verb tenses – ugh!). Your cough syrup story reminded me of a similar problem at the bus station – I was fully prepared to ask how to get somewhere, but I did not anticipate how to interpret the response. Lesson learned.

Rusa also has a good point about learning idioms. It makes communicating easier when you know these phrases and gives you a peek inside the culture.
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matt November 21, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Hi Betsy! I can see how learning the language so you don’t get on the wrong bus and end up hundreds of miles in the opposite direction can be a useful advantage. Idioms are definitely fun and humorous to learn and I an definitely see how they open up a window into a culture. Hope you continue to make great progress on your Spanish aquisition!

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Mark November 19, 2010 at 2:16 am

Good luck in your language learning! I can’t agree with your premise enough! Learning Spanish has been one of the most rewarding things in my life. I can go and on about the benefits forever. Seriously, it has changed my life and my interactions not just abroad but at home. (Though Spanish is spoken much more than Indonesian in the US). Anyways I’m on to learning French now. Looking forward to seeing a video of you speaking some Indonesian 🙂

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matt November 21, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Hey Mark! Congratulations on being bi-lingual. It’s good to hear that your experience has been beneficial on so many different levels. I like your idea of a video of me speaking Indonesian. I may have to put something together once I get a better command of the language. It could be quite humorous. In fact it reminds me of a story when I got a bit bold and posted on Facebook in Indonesian. What I wanted to say was that I was going to the Church to pick up my wife. What I actually said was I was going to the Church to pick up ‘A’ wife. Needless to say my wife was not at all pleased but we all got a good laugh out of it. I think not being afraid to give it a try and speak even if you end up making a major mistake is a great way to learn. Good luck on your French studies!

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Phil November 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Hey Matt, Great post. I’d like to say that while all these reasons are excellent, number one makes it worth it in itself. I can’t begin to describe how much my experience has been enhanced by getting to know people through their own language (or at least trying to). B well, Phil
Phil recently posted..Inside my Head- Five Months Alone in West Africa

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matt November 21, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Hey Phil! Thanks for the testimony on how learning/speaking another language has enhanced your travels. Getting the chance to meet and connect to people is a great thing. Hope things are well!

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Sarah Wu November 20, 2010 at 1:39 am

Great post! Let’ see I know Mandarin, Cantonese and Taiwanese. Even though my fiance’s parent are in China. They only speak Fuzhounese. They don’t even understand mandarin. I’m going to relay on him so much when I go see them lol.

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matt November 21, 2010 at 6:09 pm

Wow Sarah!! It’s awesome you can speak so many different languages. Not only are there so mnay different languages but then there are different dialects as well.

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sarah wu November 23, 2010 at 12:12 pm

: P heehee thank you! My grandparent speak Taiwanese so I had to pick it up somehow since i live with them when I was a kid.
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James Fulton November 20, 2010 at 2:44 am

Knowledge of a foreign language is a must nowadays for those who are into international business or a frequent traveller, moreover there is a lot of career oppurtunities are also available all over the world for second language instructors…I would like to mention a quote of Eugene Saviano here “The person who has never comprehended, spoken, read or written a language other than his mother tongue has little or no perspective on his own language,…he has never penetrated the rich areas of learning and experience lying beyond monolingual communication.”

James
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matt November 21, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Hi James! Speaking multiple languages definitely offers an advantage from a career and business perspective. Love the quote! Thanks for commenting.

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Stanley Lee November 21, 2010 at 4:58 am

Matt,

Benny Lewis is a great chap at language hacking. I pretty much mentioned the benefits of learning Spanish in the United States responding to someone else’s article (http://blog.sysil.com/2010/02/21/analysis-and-methods-of-being-fluent-in-multiple-languages/), although my writing skills weren’t as sharp then when I just started my blog. I’m looking forward to the day arriving to start nomading.

Stanley
Stanley Lee recently posted..Unknown Consequences of Saying Yes

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matt November 21, 2010 at 6:14 pm

Hi Stanley! I agree that Benny Lewis is a great guy. Enjoyed your article. I like your idea of watching TV in the language you are learning or even listening to lyrics of music. At one time I found an Indonesian site that offered up downloads of childrens text books all in Indonesian. It was like sitting in 1st grade all over. 🙂 Thanks for your comment and good luck with your own nomadic adventures!

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Tristan November 22, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Great points, Matt. I’ve lived overseas for several years and studied linguistics in school, so I’m definitely a fan!

I’d say that learning a foreign language just makes life easier in general when you’re in that country. How much will you be enjoying life if you can’t talk to anyone or understand anything and have a hard time getting around vs. the opposite?

Again, great points, and retweeted 🙂
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matt November 23, 2010 at 1:24 am

Hi Tristan! Thanks for retweeting the post. Appreciate that. I can definitely tell that speaking Indonesian is going to go a long way toward creating an incredible adventure. How was learning Russian and Ukrainian?

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Al@top 10 antivirus November 23, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Learning foreign language is extremely useful, for ourselves and for business world.

I learnt English so hard when i am already adult, and i notice this is harder.

Learning foreign language when you are younger is easier, especially when people around you talk about those language.
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matt November 25, 2010 at 1:59 am

It is definitely more difficult to learn a second language as an adult. We are working to teach our kids Indonesian since they are the perfect age to be able to pick it up quickly. I’m sure they will learn it faster then I will.

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Susan Wanderlust September 5, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Yes, learning a new language is totally great – I speak three, or four, depending on how you look at it: English, Malay, Hokkien and Mandarin – two Chinese dialects. (I am this way because Malaysians are forced to be at least bilingual because we are a multi-racial country.) I’m actually still trying to be achieve fluency in my Mandarin and learn to read too. I find the process of learning especially invigorating. The most important thing I realise is to remove that mental block that says that you can’t do it, only people with a knack of languages can. For years I believed that and I didn’t make progress. But once I stopped believing that I achieved some movement.

Your kids will really benefit from the Indonesian environment. They will pick up the language faster. It’s truly a good thing to be bilingual or even trilingual 🙂
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Matt | 1 Year Sabbatical September 8, 2011 at 11:42 pm

Wow! Three languages. That’s awesome. I struggle with just one. 😉 I think you make an excellent point that one has to believe that they can learn a second language. And I think that is true with anything. If you don’t believe you can do something you might as well just give up and move on to something you do believe in. I’ve spent years not dedicating myself to learning Indonesian and now I’ll learn the hard way by either sinking or swimming.

So which language was the most difficult to learn?

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Susan Wanderlust September 12, 2011 at 6:23 am

Well, ironically it is Mandarin. I may be Chinese, but I can’t read Chinese because my schooling was in Bahasa Malaysia and English. 😉 They have a word for Chinese like me here – “bananas” (white on the inside, yellow on the outside tee hee). I have a foundation in Mandarin and speak it with a good accent, but I’m light years away from being absolutely fluent.

I think immersion is the way to go when it comes to learning languages. 🙂 You have to be brave enough to speak it to the natives, who will actually appreciate you for making the effort. I know US missionaries in Malaysia who speak ok Malay and they take every chance they can to speak Malay to the locals. 🙂
Susan Wanderlust recently posted..You’ve already made up your mind. You just don’t know it.

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Matt | 1 Year Sabbatical September 13, 2011 at 12:27 am

Hi Susan! Yes, I think that overcoming that fear of making a fool of yourself or saying something wrong while trying to communicate in a foreign language is key to progressing. It’s by making those mistakes and being able to laugh about them that we learn.

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matt November 18, 2010 at 4:13 pm

I’m actually really looking forward to that. Getting pushed outside my comfort zone and having to make a connection with someone by struggling with the language I think will be an interesting and fulfilling experience. You are correct, being forced to speak it is when real learning takes place.

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Steve November 22, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Getting out of your comfort zone is a definite plus, especially when actually abroad. I arrived in Spain promising to say ‘Yes!’ to everything so as to learn more and meet more people. It worked well, but 4 years later I have settled back down to saying ‘maybe’ too often.

Good luck with the trip.

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matt November 23, 2010 at 1:36 am

Awesome Steve! Pushing ourselves is definitely a fun way to live and enjoy life. I recently acted in a skit on stage in front of hundreds of people and really enjoyed it. It’s something I never would have seen myself doing. Love your photography!

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