Why Learning a Second Language is Good for the Soul

If I could change anything about high school, I would have stuck with Spanish until graduation instead of ducking out after the minimum required two years. Back then, I couldn’t see any application of the language–or any second language, really–to my life or my future. Due to that, I didn’t try. I forgot my verb conjugations immediately after my final exam, and washed my hands of Español as soon as I was able. And I wasn’t the only one. The only people I knew who didn’t dread having to go to their Spanish or French classes (or Mandarin Chinese, if you took that route) were the ones who would continue on to college to be language majors. Everyone that you knew spoke English, so why learn a second language?

Nothing makes my insides hurt more than when I hear someone put a non-English speaker on blast for not speaking—and I cringe even as I write this—“American.” No other country in the world has such a high degree of ethnocentrism and stubbornness surrounding their official language, and such an apathy towards the concept of learning a second language. And, honestly, I used to not care. It’s easy to not think twice about things that don’t affect your immediate life. However after exposing myself to the possibility of knowing a second language, I began to realize what I had been missing.

You have the opportunity to meet new people you wouldn’t otherwise meet.

A lot of people assume that in Europe, and around the world, everyone knows English. And while that may be true for the larger cities, in quaint Seville, it wasn’t uncommon to come across someone who didn’t even know how to say “hello.” One example that comes to mind is my doorman Pepe, who treated me and my fellow study abroad program members like good friends from the minute we walked through the door of our apartment building. The only English he knew was our names, which even then was a bit of a stretch (just ask my friend “Tin”), but he was always eager to help us in any way he could, making our stay all the more special. In addition to this was Luis, local art historian/sweetest man alive assigned to educate the members of my program on different historical sites around Seville and Spain. He would smile and nod when my friends and I would converse in English, but unless you spoke to him in Spanish, you couldn’t really have any sort of communication with him. I would have never had the pleasure of meeting these people if hadn’t had my knowledge (albeit, somewhat mediocre) of the Spanish language.

You can travel more seamlessly.

This one is a no brainer. I think of the American stereotype of speaking loudly and slowly in enunciated English to any foreign language speakers, thinking it will improve their understanding. When my friends and I traveled to non-Spanish-speaking countries, we would at least attempt to learn a few crucial words or phrases in the language of that country. You are a guest in their country, why not meet them halfway? I remember having lunch in Seville when I overheard a British couple ordering “TWO BEERS PLEASE. TWO. BEERS” to their clearly confused waiter. Isn’t is just as easy to say dos cervezas por favor? When you know a second language, even just the basics, travelling to countries that speak that language make everything from ordering at a restaurant to buying train tickets a whole lot easier.

It makes it easier to understand more languages.

I didn’t realize this until I was on the plane to Rome, sitting between a Dutch man and an Italian man. Luckily the Dutch man was multilingual, and was able to translate for us, but even when Dutch and Italian were speaking in their own language to each other, I found myself able to somewhat follow the conversation. Knowing a second language is a gateway drug to learning more languages (Also, without my Spanish, I may have never been able to understand when Italian complimented my “beautiful blue eyes.” Call me, Pierre).

Maybe one day, after I have Spanish down-pat, I’ll move on to learning one or two other languages. If knowing a second language can offer all of these unique, invaluable experiences, I couldn’t begin to imagine the benefits of learning a third or fourth!

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