The Many Benefits of Learning a Second Language
April 23rd, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
There are approximately 6000 languages in use throughout the world, with an estimated 100 to 200 languages currently spoken in the United States. Student populations at colleges and universities are becoming more diverse, especially for online schools that provide access to education both nationally and internationally. In addition, the global nature of business has also influenced the economy and increased the number of multicultural employees and positions. Students may consider becoming fluent in a second language as it will offer many benefits related to learning and could offer future benefits related to job opportunities and career development.
Bilinguals vs. Monolinguals
Students may believe at first that learning another language, especially those students who are only fluent in one language, is going to be a difficult process and that a special aptitude is necessary. While there will be an investment of time and effort required, Viorica Marian, associate professor at Northwestern University has found through research conducted by the school “that the experience of becoming bilingual itself makes learning a new language easier.” Students benefit from learning another language as they develop a better understanding of their primary language and that assists the process of translating words and phrases to another language.
There is a common misconception that becoming bilingual or learning another language must be done at an early age. François Grosjean, Ph.D. emphasizes in Psychology Today that “there is no upper age limit for acquiring a new language and then continuing one’s life with two or more languages. Nor is there any limit in the fluency that one can attain in the new language.”
Improved Communication and Relationships
As students develop fluency in another language they will likely become more articulate with the process of communication. During interactions with other students they will find it easier to communicate with classmates of other nationalities. And it is not uncommon for students to be exposed to other languages in college as the Census Bureau estimates that “one out of five American households speaks a language other than English at home – and that proportion is rapidly growing.” According to educator Nina Raab, students that can interact with others of diverse linguistic backgrounds will develop more relationships in college because they “are likely to see commonality with people from other cultures.”
For online students, the exposure to other languages will not be as obvious since messages posted within the classroom are required to be in English (unless it is a foreign language class); however, through introductions and interactions students will learn more about their classmates’ background and build relationships based upon common interests. From my experience, as students find additional ways of relating to each other, they build community and strengthen collaboration, which improves the learning process.
Cognitive Benefits and Language Learning
A benefit of studying another language is the increased cognitive functioning of the brain, or ability of the brain to process information. An article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Margarita Kaushanskaya and Viorica Marian, discussed bilinguals as having a learning advantage because they are able to sort through information quicker and determine what’s important and what is irrelevant. Judith Kroll of Pennsylvania State University spearheaded an international study that examined bilingualism and brain activity. Kroll found that “something about this mental juggling produces benefits that we can see in tasks that extend way beyond language itself.” As students strengthen their cognitive processing they develop higher-order thinking such as critical thinking skills.
Becoming fluent in more than one language produces a sharper focus and clarity. In the New York Times article, Why Bilinguals Are Smarter, it was noted that “collective evidence from a number of studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks.” By learning how to become fluent in more than one language students develop an ability to be focused and tune out distractions, which in turn can produce other academic benefits such as increased reading retention and comprehension.
Career Benefits for Bilinguals
The U.S. economy extends to a global marketplace and being bilingual may offer new or additional job opportunities. Russell A. Berman, the 2011 President of the Modern Language Association and professor at Stanford University, provides this advice for college students: “having strong skills in another language may give you an edge when applying for a job. That ability will set you apart from other applicants and show a potential employer that you have demonstrated long-term discipline in acquiring specialized knowledge.”
There are other factors to consider as students decide if learning another language would be beneficial for their career:
• A recent report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics predicts the employment of US translators and interpreters to increase 42 percent between 2010 and 2020.
• According to a 2010 survey from CareerBuilder and USA Today, employers are looking to hire a diverse workforce to appeal to a diverse clientele.
• Many jobs have bilingual pay differentials, which, according to Salary.com, range between 5 and 20 percent more pay per hour.
Learning another language may provide students with an additional skill set, provide a competitive edge in the job market, or even additional career options.
Resources for Learning a Second Language
Ken Stewart, 2006 American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) National Language Teacher of the Year, believes “learning a language can be greatly enhanced with perseverance and practice,” and emphasizes that “interactive learning is the best since language learning is a social activity.” Students may be able to take a language course at their school. If an option to take a class is not available, or if it would create a schedule that is too cumbersome, there are many interactive courses and programs available online to consider.
A helpful source titled 25 Free Resources for Learning a Language Online, developed by Jane Hart, founder of the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies, included the following websites:
• Busuu: This is described as a language learning community that will allow students to practice their language skills through interactive language courses and lessons.
• Conversation Exchange: Through this service there are various formats available to learn, through face-to-face conversation, correspondence, and text or voice chat.
• Digital Dialects provides free interactive games for learning phrases, numbers, useful words, spelling, verb conjugation and alphabets, along with links to study resources.
• Forvo: This source offers pronunciation guide for all of the words in the world. Students can ask for a word or name, and another user will pronounce it.
• Verbalplanet is noted as an award-winning service that offers interactive language lessons with a private online tutor.
By utilizing an online resource students have the flexibility of scheduling time that is convenient for them and work in their home or other study area without having to attend a traditional class.
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If you are looking for a new way to develop your overall learning skills and add a new qualification to your resume, you may want to consider learning a new language. As you become fluent in another language the result will likely include enhanced cognitive abilities or a sharper ability to process information, while learning to relate to and work with others of differing nationalities and backgrounds. There are many online resources available to make this a fun and interactive process, which also allows you to allocate the time necessary to participate in the learning activities as you can work it into your schedule.
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