For too long, my biggest regret was that I hadn’t travelled more before I had my children. Sure, families go on overseas holidays all the time, some even pack up their lives and travel around the country in a caravan, like gypsies. Unfortunately, because my oldest child was diagnosed with a disability when he was two and required intensive early intervention, this highly appealing lifestyle was impractical for our situation.
And then I realised that if I couldn’t travel, I could do the next best thing – I could learn how to speak a foreign language!
Many of my friends and family were impressed, and somewhat mystified. Because in Australia, unless we grow up with family that emigrated from our ancestral home, bilingualism isn’t advocated beyond the primary level of public education. It is often left up to the individual to pursue even an intermediate level of fluency.
However, the ability to speak multiple languages fluently is common in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, mainly due to higher levels of immigration and the physical proximity of the different countries to each other.
And studies show that speaking two or more languages has numerous social, cognitive and overall health benefits for individuals.
The social advantages of learning another language include:
1. Better understanding of different cultures
It is impossible to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language without learning about the country and culture where the language originated from or is most commonly spoken.
And as a result, bilingual adults and children tend to be less racist and more tolerant towards individual differences.
2. Increased self- consciousness
Research has also found that bilinguals tend to emphasize different character traits, depending on which language they are speaking, while another study found significant changes in self perception among bilinguals.
As well as a deeper connection to global consciousness, bilinguals are able to exert better self-control, and less frequently internalize negative states like anxiety, anger, loneliness and depression.
3. More job opportunities
Knowing a second (or third) language can open the door to new career opportunities, particularly if changing fields, as well as improve competitiveness in the current job market.
Jobs as translators or interpreters are among the fastest growing occupations in Australia, and industries such as travel and tourism, healthcare, military, journalism, education, and international development are always in need of employees with bilingual skills and the ability to work across different cultures.
Many modern Australian companies also have international offices, or sell their products abroad, or have production facilities in other countries. And these companies often prefer to hire versatile employees who can speak other languages and navigate different cultural expectations.
The health and cognitive processing advantages of learning another language include:
1. Increased intelligence
Educators, scientists and medical professionals often compare the brain to a muscle, because it functions better with consistent use.
Speaking a foreign language exercises this mental muscle by challenging it to recognise, negotiate meaning, and communicate in different language systems.
2. Improved multitasking, decision-making and problem-solving skills
Multilingual adults make good multitaskers because they become adept at switching between two structural systems of speech and writing.
When speaking another language, bilinguals must select their words more carefully, as some words or expressions do not translate, and each language has its own structure. This allows bilinguals to practise choosing only important information and ignoring unnecessary details, which assists with problem-solving in everyday life.
Speaking another language can also help bilinguals make more rational decisions. A psychological study by the University of Chicago found that relying on a second language when making important choices forced bilinguals to subdue their natural emotional reactions, by creating a cognitive emotional distance that allowed them to focus on facts rather than emotions.
4. Improved memory
Learning a language involves memorising rules and vocabulary, improving overall memory, which means that multiple language speakers are better at remembering lists, sequences, names, and directions, among other things.
And by extension, an improved memory helps to ward off Alzheimer’s and dementia.
5. Better understanding of own language
Learning a foreign language draws focus to the general mechanics of language – grammar, sentence structure and conjugations – and makes multilinguals more aware of the ways different languages, including their own native tongue, can be structured and manipulated.
Although many of these cognitive advantages are only apparent in those who speak more than one language regularly, adults can still achieve the same levels of fluency as a younger learner and obtain the same cognitive and social advantages.
There are many accredited educational institutions in Australia that offer casual or intensive language courses, such as TAFESA, the Vocational Language Learning Centre, the School of Languages, and Listen and Learn Australia.
And there are non-profit organisations affiliated with specific cultures, such as the Alliance Française and the Dante Alighieri Society, that offer classes in most Australian capital cities.
Alternatively, signing up to a free language exchange website is an easy and affordable way to learn a new language.
Users simply create a profile stating where they live, their hobbies, what languages they can communicate in and which languages they wish to learn, and based on this public profile, users are able to contact other users with similar interests and language goals. Contact generally begins over private messaging or email, then both parties can decide the best way to continue communicating.
Some of the most recommended language exchange websites are My Language Exchange (mylanguageexchange.com), Conversation Exchange (conversationexchange.com), Speaky (speaky.com), Easy Language Exchange (easylanguageexchange.com) and the Mixxer (language-exchanges.org).
I have done both – completed an intensive 12-month language course at an educational institution, and joined a language exchange website – and both methods have their pros and cons.
But in addition to all of the social and health benefits listed above, the biggest advantage to learning a second language has been the friends I’ve made – classmates from my French classes at TAFESA, and pen pals I’ve met online via My Language Exchange.
In fact, I have four girlfriends, all from different regions in France, with whom I have been talking for several years now; we exchange Christmas cards and birthday gifts, we’re friends on Facebook, we occasionally talk via video chat on Skype. And early in 2016, I was lucky enough to meet one of mes amies when she came to Australia for a working holiday!
So, although I may never get to backpack across Europe, and have yet to drive around Australia with my family in our gypsy caravan, learning a foreign language has opened up the world to me in more ways than I imagined.