We’ve known for years that learning a second language is one of the best ways to nourish your brain. From increasing cognitive functioning, to keeping dementia at bay, to enabling you to see the world in a different way, we’re hardly lacking for reasons to enroll in a class or take an immersion trip abroad.
But there is an even more important reason: in 2016, the world is more global than ever. People and cultures are connected, and the world could be a much more harmonious place if we could just speak a bit of each other’s languages.
Nowadays most of us are used to it: we share our offices, our public transit, and our apartment buildings with people from languages and cultures we’ve visited on vacation or only vaguely heard of. People are expatriating left and right, transferring to overseas offices or taking new jobs abroad. Americans are marrying Nicaraguans and settling down in Costa Rica, and any other combination you can fathom.
In the US alone, about 20% of people speak a language other than English at home. And that doesn’t even account for the millions of multilinguals who speak English with their partners and neighbors but another language with family and loved ones overseas. In the modern, connected, globalized world, we’re sharing linguistic space wherever we go.
This is why now, more than ever, human harmony means understanding each other’s often shockingly different values and worldviews. And there’s simply no better way to understand someone than to speak their language.
“Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the twenty-first century,” as Gregg Roberts said while talking about the US state of Utah’s bilingual education program. Roberts’ comparison highlights the reality that, like being unable to read or write in the 20th century, speaking only one language in the 21st cuts one off from many levels and layers of society, both economic and cultural, that one needs to be truly connected and balanced in the modern age.
As someone living in a multicultural city or neighborhood, an earnest attempt at learning at least a few phrases of someone else’s language will almost always be received as a sign of respect. Simply showing enough awareness of your Vietnamese neighbor’s culture to wish them a good morning is a gesture that acknowledges another person’s right to their own culture while acknowledging and embracing the differences between you.
Going further and devoting a few months or years of your life to learning a new language is even better for your cultural awareness and global citizenship, and offers insights into other people’s ways of thinking.
Spend some time speaking Spanish with Latin Americans, for example, and you’ll probably come to realize that the Spanish américa refers to the giant landmass that English prefers to either divide into “the Americas” or that citizens of the United States of America use to refer to their own country.
You’ll realize that even fundamental ideas about the world—like how many continents there are and what they’re called—are like a tinted lens built into your mother language and the eyes through which you see the world.
And, ideally, you’ll also realize that your worldview isn’t any more accurate or inaccurate than someone else’s, but instead just one with different values. And that it doesn’t matter if there is one giant continent or two different ones named North and South; you’ve got to share it, whatever you call it and wherever you artificially divide it.
As you continue to work on bringing balance to your life, consider the benefits that learning a language affords not only your mental health, but also your ability to participate meaningfully with the community you live in, those you engage with, and global society at large.