Dear Mr. Dad: The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world and everyone wants to do business with us. Since we speak English here, how important do you think it is for children to learn a foreign language?
A: Unfortunately, our education system doesn’t place a lot of value on foreign-language knowledge—for exactly the reasons you mentioned. But in my view, it’s very important. Of course, you’re talking to a guy with an undergrad degree in Russian and a minor in French, so you can take that with a grain of salt. But there’s plenty of research to back me up. Let me walk you through some of the benefits.
- It can make you smarter. Numerous studies have found that studying a foreign language improves students’ listening skills, memory, and attention span, along with their critical thinking skills, ability to solve problems, and creativity. Foreign language learners also do better than their mono-lingual (knowing only one-language) peers on verbal and math tests. Yes, math. Some experts believe that earning a new language requires an understanding of patterns and deciphering puzzles—both of which are related to mathematics. Multi-lingual kids also increase their English vocabulary, reading, and grammar usage.
- It could help you get a job—and more. Participants in a recent study done at the American Graduate School of International Management (Thunderbird) in Glendale, Arizona—where I got my MBA—told researchers that knowing a foreign language had given them a leg up in being hired and improved their career paths. It also made them more aware of and interested in other cultures,
- It’s patriotic. According to the National Research Council, “A pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry.” In other words, the easier it is to communicate with people, the less they’ll be to go to war.
- It keeps your mind sharp. Knowledge of two or more languages has been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s and other similar brain diseases.
- It makes your brain bigger. Students in the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy have to become fluent in several different languages within only 13 months. Researchers compared the students’ brains with those of others who also have to learn a huge amount of information in a short time, such as medical students. They found that the language learners experienced major growth in several areas of the brain (the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex). But the medical students’ brains didn’t grow at all.
- It can make the world a little smaller. Knowing another language—or developing the skills to learn one—makes it easier to travel and to enjoy other countries’ culture.
Rather than asking whether or not you should have your child learn a second language, I’d suggest that you ask When. And the answer to that one is “The younger the better.” Some studies indicate that starting at around age 10, we start losing the ability to hear and reproduce sounds from other languages. That explains why most people who move to a new country as adults can’t quite lose their accent. But their children master the host language—including idioms, slang, and even swearing—accent-free. Each additional year of second language training increases the chances of experiencing the benefits above.
Though the education system is putting less importance on foreign languages, it doesn’t take away from the actual importance on a global scale. This makes learning foreign languages more important than we know. Teachers are needed to help inspire and lead this renewed focus. There are plenty of avenues if this role interests one, like masters programs for teachers that can be found all across the internet. Gain the tools needed to help bring this education to more across the map
There’s a nice summary of a lot of the research into the advantages of learning foreign languages here.