Great Courses: Foreign Languages

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen.” – Stephen Hawking, 1993

You’ve undoubtedly been so mad, happy or sad that you couldn’t describe your emotions. You haven’t quite known what to write in a birthday card, or stewed over what your crush really meant in a Facebook comment. You laughed at a YouTube video where a dog pushes a baby in a stroller, but you didn’t know what the Italians guffawing in the background were saying. Perhaps you’ve needed Google Translate to shift a body of text into your language (hey, it might work).

All of these examples demonstrate the power and limitations of language.

Learning a foreign language enriches your entire self. Knowing a foreign language can unlock cultural and geographical parts of the world, help you understand your native language better and teach you to process what’s around you from a different perspective. A foreign language also makes your skills more transferable in an increasingly global economy. Throw in the neurological benefits of developing competence in a foreign language and the study of any language, from Sanskrit to Spanish, merits inclusion in the Great Courses.

Language is the mechanism by which we organize and transmit our thoughts. These systems are powerful and fundamentally entrenched in the human experience. Linguists say that Homo sapiens started using language approximately 150,000 years ago; today we have 6,000 different languages and dialects spread throughout 7.3 billion people. Google alone processes over 3 billion text-based searches per day.

Our modern world, for better or worse, is shaped by our languages and how we use them.

From Grammar to Vocabulary, Foreign Language Boosts Your Native Tongue

Structure and organization are hallmarks of language. Regardless of how many words you know, they won’t mean much if you can’t align them to communicate your ideas to others. Strangely, you’ll find that studying the vocabulary and grammar of a foreign language will subtly enhance your understanding of your native tongue.

Studying a new language means that you have to learn the basic rules for words and how they come together. Rules and structure differ from tongue to tongue: Russian, for example, lacks definite and indefinite articles, and English doesn’t convey gender as seamlessly as Latin, Spanish and Hindi languages do. Learning a foreign language’s syntax will broaden your general linguistic understanding.

As you learn another language’s structure and rules, your own language will become a frame of reference for comparison, and you’ll develop a better understanding of its conventions. Your writing and speaking will become cleaner and you’ll have an easier time processing difficult texts, such as Shakespeare’s plays or a college textbook. In short, the grammar instruction you receive through studying a foreign language will provide the syntactical practice you should have received in high school, but probably didn’t.

English is an amalgam of other languages and just 1% of its words are unique; the other 99% have been adapted from centuries of communication. No matter what major language you study, you’ll find English peppered within its elements, and you’ll understand both cultures that much better for it.

You may have dreamed of leading a life very different than your own. Perhaps you’ve entertained romantic visions of haggling over a baguette with a Parisian baker or enjoying a playful, witty argument in Yiddish over a chess board.

You can’t lead a second life, but learning to communicate in a foreign language affords you the opportunity to add another dimension to your personality. You’ll have access to another system of thought and a new canon of literature, music, politics and news. A second language essentially confers you membership in a second culture.

That membership provides access to the people who communicate in that language. Learning to speak with other people in their native language will provide you with a detailed insight into their lives. Just as a child develops from basic, simplistic communication to nuanced, mature conversations, one’s understanding of another’s thoughts deepens when they can share a language.

That familiarity with another language and its accompanying culture broadens you as a person. Ask anyone who grew up in a bilingual home: they’ll describe how they played two roles in two different worlds, and how it was a recipe for a rich life.

Employees who know multiple languages have a valuable role in the workplace and are compensated for their expertise. The Economist reports that people who speak English and Spanish earn a salary 1.5% higher than the national average; those who know German make 3.8% more.

Just about every industry, education, entertainment, finance, STEM, values employees who can tap into emerging markets in countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China. If you can speak two languages, you can fulfill the function of two monolingual employees for less than twice the price. Needless to say, you’ll be a hot commodity.

Companies with an international focus particularly rely upon people who can speak multiple languages. It’s not unusual for an otherwise average student to land a great job out of school because of their foreign language skills, while higher-achieving peers spend years searching for a comparable position. Additionally, many of the people who weathered the recession best had a variety of adaptable skills, which often included fluency in a second language.

Hard numbers are difficult to calculate, but a foreign language leads to plenty of additional professional opportunities. Sometimes the value of a foreign language is difficult to quantify: perhaps you can earn a higher salary, but it’s difficult to measure how rewarding it is to obtain the career flexibility bilinguals enjoy. Having more options for where to live and work allows you to advance your life on your terms, which pays off in both earnings and happiness.

If you’re not convinced that knowing a foreign language will increase your wealth and quality of life, you might be interested to learn how a foreign language can help you live longer.

Learning a language gives the grey matter in your brain a workout. Neuroscience research shows that people who know a second language have a higher density of grey matter and increased brain function. Brain plasticity improves by working out your mind with a second language, providing real long-term benefits.

Promising research also suggests that learning a second language can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, with one study arguing that bilingual subjects earned themselves an additional four years compared to monoglots. Suggestions for early-Alzheimers’ patients increasingly includes learning a second language as a way to boost the brain’s defense mechanisms.

You only have so many slots in your class schedule, but it’s worth making room for a foreign language. The requirements of introductory language courses aren’t onerous and don’t require so much class time that they’ll prevent you from taking classes in your major. Additionally, foreign language departments tend to be friendly and accommodating to new students. They’ll work with you as you learn and can actively help you plan study abroad trips to help you immerse yourself into the culture you’re studying.

You can study Spanish, French, Russian, American Sign Language or any one of dozens of languages. One language in particular may be a better fit for you than another, but they’re all Great Courses to take while you’re in college.