‘Why learn a foreign language when everyone speaks English?’ This has got to be one of the dullest questions ever asked! For a start, not everyone speaks English. If you’re in a foreign country and never stray from the main tourist hotspots, of course you’ll have no problem communicating in English. But if you want to see a bit more of the land, perhaps by venturing into its more remote, rural regions, you might be hard-pressed to find someone to tell you where the nearest hotel/bus stop/toilet is. And you have no chance of striking up any kind of interesting conversation with your neighbours and finding out about their lives.
Reasons to learn languages
Learning a foreign language – no matter which you choose – is enlightening. It makes you aware that other modes of being exist; other ways of working and thinking exist. A language is a window into a country’s culture, and so much cultural sensibility is invested in language. Knowing just a few words can suddenly bring on a whole new level of understanding – even in trivial, fun things. For example, doesn’t the name of the famous Hispanic crusader – Zorro – seem all the more appropriate when you realise he’s styled himself as ‘the mask of the Fox’?
Another important reason: learning a foreign language gets the little grey matter going in your brain. It’s been proven to help ward off diseases like dementia, because you are keeping important parts of your brain active. Yes, you could probably get a similar benefit from sitting down with a Sudoku puzzle – but a piece of paper is not going to talk back at you, challenge you verbally, or express delight (even gratitude) that you’re attempting to communicate in its native language. A Sudoku puzzle will not invite you back to its place for tea, or a beer, or some local speciality. A Sudoku puzzle…ok, you get the point. Languages allow you to interact with real people, people who may lead completely different lives to you, but who (on hearing you speak their language) may open up to you in ways you could never expect.
Now here’s a very attractive reason: travel! Yes, you’ll acquire a much richer understanding of a place and its people if you speak the local language, but there’s a more mundane, practical reason too. Travel is simply easier, less stressful and more convenient (and enjoyable) if you speak even a few words of a country’s language. If you need information, you can ask for it. If you’re confused by a train timetable, you can ask for clarification. You can get from A to B quicker by asking a local for directions – and so on. Travel is just more pleasant and less disorientating when you know some of the local language.
What to expect
Some language classes begin slowly, introducing learners to the basics (such as talking about your family). Others plunge learners straight in at the deep end and don’t use any English at all in lessons – but don’t panic, you’ll be amazed at how effective this can be at making you comfortable in using the new language (and in making mistakes).
All language courses will require you to study reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. There may be one competency that you struggle with more than others – you might understand everything your teacher says, for example, but find it hard to respond to questions you’re asked. This is completely normal.
Your teacher will make use of multimedia resources – videos, films, podcasts and even social media like Facebook or Twitter – to reinforce your learning. Remember to take advantage of the many brilliant free language learning apps and websites to keep your new skills ticking over in between lessons.
You have the option to work towards achieving a qualification in your chosen language, or you can keep learning for fun – whatever works for you.
Jobs using languages
· Solicitor (language skills are in demand at international firms)
· Diplomat/Foreign Office worker
· Development/humanitarian work
· Military interpreter/linguist
· Foreign rights (in areas like media or publishing)
· Tour guide
Ok, you’ve sold me. Where do I start?
Pick a language, any language. It could be the language of the country where you’d most like to go on holiday. It could be a language that’s always seemed particularly alluring and beautiful to you. Don’t worry if it seems a very exotic choice – chances are, there will be someone, somewhere in the UK, happy to teach it to you. And with the option of online courses and skype sessions, there are now few barriers to learning.
Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, Cantonese, Arabic, Polish, Mandarin, Spanish, French and German were named as the most useful languages for business in a CBI Education & skills survey in 2012. But if none of these tickle your fancy, it doesn’t matter. Find a language that intrigues you and set yourself the challenge of learning it. And don’t confine yourself to verbal or even modern-day languages. Sign language, anyone? Or how about Sanskrit?
By Kate Wilkins