While learning the language of your host country crosses the mind of most expats at least once during their time on the ground, many foreigners continue to “opt out” because of a variety of factors. Maybe they feel uncomfortable challenging themselves with something new and don’t want to go outside of their comfort zone. Perhaps they work in an English-speaking environment so they think they don’t “need” the language skills. You can shop at the supermarket in English by merely putting things in a cart and then reading the numbers off when the cashier rings them up, so many people think language isn’t a necessity in that regard. You can also point to the picture on the menu when you aren’t sure of what something is called in the local dialect. Not to mention, when all of your friends speak English, or your community and/or work environment is an expat community of English speakers, it tends to lead to insulation where you are living in an isolated bubble of expats who never really blend into the native environment.
There are a hundred excuses that one can create as to why you aren’t learning the language, but what many people don’t realize is that learning a language is about more than simply fitting into your new home. And it’s more than just respecting the local culture. Immersion in a language is, according to Michael Byram and Carol Morgan in their book Teaching and Learning Language and Culture, a way to get in touch with the social side of a culture. In regards to this social instrument, “the feelings…and motivations of learners in relation to the target language…, to the speakers of the language, and to the culture…, affects how learners respond to the input to which they are exposed.”
In other words, through language immersion you are also experiencing cultural immersion, which makes it impossible to ignore the culture of the language you are learning. You will begin to go native simply by immersing yourself in the environment, which transforms you from just another foreigner who has no respect for the locals into a native-speaking resident who the locals respect, feel comfortable around, can joke with, and who understands the native sense of humor and cultural values by the very nature of their immersion. You become more than just another expat; you become a resident who understand the local culture and why things are done the way they are, how the sense of humor works, why certain cultural values are observed and so on and so forth.
But language and cultural immersion is more than just learning another language and culture. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages along with Learn NC, individuals (especially children) who immerse themselves completely in learning a language experience a number of beneficial side effects, not the least of which are increased cognitive abilities, increased intellectual growth, a better understanding of local culture, enhanced flexibility in mental exercises, increased memory, creative, greater levels of divergent thinking and higher order thinking and reasoning skills. And once you’ve learned a second language it’s even easier to learn a third because you have the enhanced capabilities from the first time around, and the fourth time is easier than the second, etc.
The brain is like a muscle in the sense that it always has the potential to learn and adapt, and the same thing that is true for muscles is true for the brain: use it or lose it. If you are continually challenging it with new things to learn and overcome, it will always adapt, leading to stronger cognitive function. The ability of the brain to continually produce new cells even in adulthood means that you can continually adapt and overcome, and there is no such thing as “you can’t teach a dog new tricks”. Given our brain’s nearly limitless capabilities combined with the fact that you can stave off cognitive degeneration while building up your own mental prowess simply by learning another language, all of those excuses as to why you haven’t picked up the local dialect fade away into the background. If you won’t learn the language out of respect to the culture, at the very least do it for your own health and wellness.
These benefits are for adults as well as children. For adults it means increased chances at job opportunities on a global scale because you can communicate in more than one way and you have increased mental capabilities compared to your peers. For children it means the same increased opportunities later in life, but earlier on it means the potential for expanding the mind at those crucial years when the mind is open to greatest amount of absorption. For example, Dr. Harry Chugani from the University of California in Los Angeles stated in Reshaping Brain for Better Future that the most receptive time in a person’s life is between the ages of 10 and 12, when the mind can absorb things at a greater rate than after it has had time to stagnate as an adult with only one singular language.
Contrary to popular belief, the English language is not the most spoken language on the planet. Mandarin has over a billion native speakers, while English only has around 500 million, roughly the same as Hindu. Spanish is around 400 million, and Russian and Arabic are both in between the 250 and 300 million mark. From there it drops off.
And while in the past it used to be the case that English was the most spoken language in the business world, this is no longer the case. As the U.S. star continues to fade, other countries are emerging as leaders of the 21st century. Graduates and skilled workers are no longer looking for job opportunities on U.S. soil Instead, they are looking abroad to emerging markets in India, China, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and beyond. This is especially true if you happen to work in an IT field or as an SEO specialist.
The English language has had a good run and about two decades of a head start on everyone else in regards to the Internet, but as more and more countries around the world catch up in the online arenas, website development, SEO management and other online-related business opportunities are cropping up…in Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Hindu, German, French and beyond. The online marketplace has been saturated with English-language content and now it is the other languages which are emerging as global leaders in the online revolution.
Learning more than one language isn’t just about cultural immersion…it’s also about ensuring your ability to remain relevant in your chosen field. While jobs might be scarce in the English-speaking sector for web development and design and SEO jobs, the Spanish language market (for example) is booming as South American markets are emerging at a breakneck pace…and their businesses and websites are not in English. If you want to find the best opportunities on a global scale, you have to keep your skills on par with the change of the markets.
With globalization comes a responsibility to remain globally aware and globally competitive. And that means speaking more than just English if you want to stay on top. The most successful entrepreneurs of the modern era are not merely relegated to English-speaking markets; they have their fingers in multiple pies in multiple different markets across multiple countries with multiple languages. And as the global market continues to diversify, the ante is continually being upped as more and more language requirements become par for the course.
This post originally appeared at The Social Expat earlier in 2012 in a shortened form. It has been expanded for the Marginal Boundaries audience.