Language is the basis of society – it unifies entire countries and promotes the many unique cultures found across the globe. But it also seems that the many languages of the world have managed to build barriers that most Americans have yet to break.
About 1.5 billion people worldwide speak English, of which only 375 million are native speakers, according to Statista.com. In fact, so many people from foreign countries speak English that learning another language might seem unnecessary.
But growing up speaking English is not an automatic key to the rest of the world, and there are many additional benefits to learning another language.
According to experts, a multilingual person’s brain must constantly make decisions on what language it is absorbing and what language to respond in. This strengthens the brain’s control mechanisms and activates parts of the brain not normally associated with language in monolingual people.
These mental improvements may help a bilingual person to better process their environment, leading to a more efficient learning process.
Studies in which children as young as 7 months are asked to complete simple tasks reveal that kids brought up in multilingual households compared to those from monolingual households can more efficiently solve problems and pick up on patterns. These results suggest that even in very young children, the benefits of multilingualism spreads beyond language itself.
Bilingualism also appears to prevent the cognitive loss that comes with aging. Switching between languages stimulates new networks in the brain, which may be used to compensate for damaged ones.
"Older bilingual people enjoy improved memory and executive control relative to older monolingual people, which can lead to real-world health benefits," say experts from the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that supports brain research through grants, publications and educational programs.
Bilingualism has also been shown to help fend off the effects of mental diseases that accelerate mental decline, such as Alzheimer’s. Better yet, these benefits aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life.
Likely as a result of these cognitive effects, studies have shown that students who learn a foreign language in high school are likely to perform better than students of the same academic ability who did not study a foreign language.
This boost in education opens new paths in postsecondary education, including study abroad and travel programs.
Students will also be exposed to new fields of study and career options that they may not have considered without this language back round.
Once it becomes time to apply for a job, applicants who speak more than one language have a considerable advantage over those who do not; knowing a foreign language is a valuable asset in the workforce, especially as international business and trade increases.
Attitudes and beliefs
The study of a language almost always includes the study of a culture as well. This exposure to different ways of life allows for a more open mindset, which can aid in ethnic acceptance and even solve a wide variety of social issues.
There are also huge benefits in travel; the frustration and isolation of being unable to communicate often dampens the amazing experience a foreign country has to offer. However, becoming proficient in the language of that area allows for more attention to be focused on the people and culture itself.
As international business opportunities increase, the importance of communication and understanding between cultures has also skyrocketed. Language learning can open new doors not just between individuals, but between entire countries.
How can you learn?
The first thing to do is talk to your foreign language teacher about upcoming events, resources and clubs. These can be the cheapest and easiest ways to get a jump ahead. However, Franca Jesella, a Kenmore West French teacher, noted that "there comes a point where you can only learn so much in the classroom, and that’s when you have to start to spread out and travel and meet people of that language."
Fortunately, many high schools participate in exchange programs with other schools from around the world.
It is on these trips that Anne Brown, a French teacher at Kenmore West, witnesses firsthand the amazing effects language learning can have between cultures. She says that many students form strong friendships, and even travel to visit each other again with their families.
"We form lasting bonds with them," she says.
But before you pack your bags and book a flight, the language learning process can be jumpstarted just by including it in your daily routine.
"I think kids tend to plateau, so they have to start listening to music, watching television and reading material on their own, and that’s really going to enhance their experience," said Jesella.
A foreign language doesn’t need to be just another high school class to look back on; it is a skill that can grow beyond the classroom, and even beyond the borders of our country. It is time the people of America travel the world not as tourists, but as discoverers.
Rachel Valente is a sophomore at Kenmore West High School.